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The School Construction Challenge: Fast Work, Hard Deadlines

Kirkwood High School is part of a school-building boom in north central Tennessee.

Nestled on the Kentucky border, Clarksville, Tennessee, in Montgomery County, has always been a vibrant area. Fort Campbell is there and Nashville is less than an hour away. Over the past few years, the area has experienced explosive growth.

“We have a lot of industry coming to Montgomery County,” said Bryan Lopp, facilities manager for the Clarksville-Montgomery County School System. “We have several top manufacturers, three battery plants under construction, and a tire manufacturing facility getting ready to double production.”

That means the school system must keep up with a growing population. The county began building a three-school campus in August 2020, with Kirkwood Middle completed in 2022, Kirkwood High in 2023, and Kirkwood Elementary on track for completion in summer, 2024.

That fast pace of construction trickles down to contractors. Parents, teachers, administrators, county officials and businesses all rely on new schools to open on time. United Mechanical & Electrical has had a long, fruitful relationship with the Clarksville-Montgomery County School System and handled the HVAC equipment and controls in all three schools. The results have been rewarding, but schools are never an easy job.

“Building schools is challenging because they usually have very aggressive construction schedules, and everything in them is block or concrete,” said Brandon Baggett, vice president and construction manager for United Mechanical & Electrical. “From the time they approve the bid, there’s usually about 13 or 14 months until it’s scheduled to open.”

The Relentless Pace of School Construction

That 14 months translates into seven for United Mechanical. HVAC installation can’t begin until the building is partially up – it’s impossible to install pipes and ducts before the walls are done. On the backend, these systems must be turned on long before construction is completed.

“Right now, we're working on the elementary school,” said Baggett. “We have to turn this system over and be operating for sheet rock finish and painting. They want us to have the HVAC on so the school can be turned over by the end of June 2024.”

Schools are considered heavy commercial construction, meaning they have lots of ducts and piping. Because they’re built almost entirely from block or concrete, all pipes and ducts must be mapped out early in the process.

“Before that equipment ever hits the site, we’re working side-by-side with masons laying the block or pouring the walls,” said Baggett. “The challenge is benchmarking and layout to make sure all the holes are the right sizes and at the right elevations for every piece of pipe and duct work that passes through those walls.” 


Construction Dominos

The unforgiving schedule means all pauses have a ripple effect. Rain can slow construction and delay pipe and duct work. Later, the gym floor can’t be laid down until the HVAC is on and the building at normal temperatures. Of course, that can’t happen until the electricity is installed.

Another concern is equipment delivery. Supply chain disruptions have been all-to-common and can wreak havoc on the schedule. “Something that scares everybody is getting equipment here on time,” said Baggett. “There’s a huge volume of equipment that's going into these schools.”

Trane made sure the schools’ water source heat pumps (WSHPs) and controls were there on time for installation. Still, Trane’s contribution started well before the first shovel hit the ground.

“Trane worked with us to make equipment selections,” said Dillon Nix, principal mechanical engineer for subcontractor HNA Engineering. “Sometimes, that takes several iterations as the design changes and we're finalizing plans. Trane was really prompt, helping us get that done so we could deliver construction documents to bid.”

Trane Systems in Action

Kirkwood High School opened in August 2023 and the HVAC equipment and climate control have gotten great reviews. “Our maintenance department is very favorable toward water source heat pump due to the functionality and low maintenance,” notes Lopp. 

In addition to being easy to maintain, the water source heat pumps are energy efficient and highly flexible. Combined with Trane controls, the systems adapt to widely variable loads during the school year.  

“You may have only ten students in a room on a hot August day, and then you may have 20 in that room on a mild day,” said Nix. “We want to manage conditions to meet both partial and full loads and save energy and costs over the life of the building.”  

The students, teachers and staff at Kirkwood High are pleased with the facility. Still, there’s been a little bit of a learning curve with the modern HVAC equipment and controls.

“My previous school was built in the 1970s,” said principal Jessica Peppard. “Every fall, we had to power down the AC and power up the heat. But this year, when I asked when I needed to turn the heat on, I was told I didn’t have to do that at all, it would just happen automatically. So, that's new and very comfortable.”