Engineering firms will readily tell you that California has some of the strictest building requirements, not just within the United States, but also in the world. This is especially true for schools and hospitals, the designs for which must be approved at the state level, rather than locally.
As regulations are continuously updated, schools and hospitals, many of which have limited funding, must contend with meeting state requirements, as well as ensuring the comfort of students and patients and keeping up with new technology. To meet these needs, engineers are continuously at work devising smart and creative methods for seismic safety, energy efficiency and creating more comfortable spaces within these building environments.
One of the biggest infrastructure and design issues facing California hospitals is seismic safety. Signed into law in 1994, Senate Bill 1953 requires all California hospitals to either retrofit their facilities or build new structures to meet modern seismic standards by 2030, or face closure.
The bill was in part a reaction to the 1994 Northridge Earthquake, which caused some hospitals’ systems to fail, according to Michael Gilmore, manager of Long Beach-based P2S Engineering’s Healthcare Group. “That spawned an enormous amount of construction within the health care industry. Groups like Kaiser built a lot of replacement hospitals,” he said.
As technology advances, health care facilities are adding new pieces of equipment, which also must meet seismic safety standards.
“The greatest change we’ve seen is the requirement for electronic medical records. It has increased the need for mobile work stations and wireless devices for both hospitals and clinics so they can perform patient charting at the exam rooms themselves,” Rick Beall, partner with MHP Structural Engineers, based at Douglas Park, explained. Multi-functional pieces of equipment are also now commonly being installed at hospitals to allow for diagnosis and treatment in one location, he noted.
One of the top challenges when engineering for schools and hospitals is ensuring seismic safety requirements are met, according to Lance Kenyon, left, and Rick Beall, partners at Douglas Park-based MHP Structural Engineers. One of their current projects involves modernizing and retrofitting Long Beach Polytechnic High School’s historic auditorium. (Photograph by the Business Journal’s Larry Duncan)
All of this equipment must meet seismic safety standards. “What happens is they put the equipment on a shake table and the manufacturer actually shakes it and makes sure that through a certain level of earthquake it’s still operable,” Beall explained.
MHP works with hospitals to anchor equipment and ensure the facility’s structure is able to handle the weight. “We have to anchor it and then also check the floor level that it rests on or it is suspended from, because these new MRIs may weigh 40,000 pounds,” Beall said. “So, when you put them on the third floor of a hospital, you have to make sure that the floor is okay to handle it.”
Gilmore pointed out that meeting stringent seismic standards comes at significant cost to hospitals. “California is very unique. It costs a lot [more] money to build a hospital here than, say, Arizona or Florida or Ohio because of the strict seismic and structural implications,” he said.
One of the ways engineers help hospitals offset these costs is through energy-efficient infrastructure and design.
“Across the country, acute care hospitals or inpatient hospitals are the second biggest energy hog of any building, second only to fast food restaurants,” Gilmore said. “So the power usage per square foot in a hospital is the second worst among all types of buildings.”
A big push in the health care industry right now is to identify energy cost savings to help make up for lost reimbursement dollars due to the Affordable Care Act, Gilmore said. “A lot can be done in energy savings,” he said. P2S is currently working with an Orange County hospital to create an onsite central utility plant. “We are able to really design and optimize our systems, to where a plant today is going to use 20 to 25 percent less energy than a plant that was installed 20 or 30 years ago.”
In addition to hospital safety and reduction of energy consumption, a top priority for hospitals today is creating comfortable conditions for patients. “Another thing we’re seeing is . . . a lot of improvements with comforting and calming environments,” particularly for patients undergoing long-term treatments, such as chemotherapy, Beall said.
MHP performed the structural engineering for Long Beach Memorial Medical Center’s Todd Cancer Institute Pavilion, which has a rooftop garden, plentiful natural lighting and other calming features. The facility opened in 2013. “As you walk through that project you’ll see waterfalls, and they have really nice views so that patients can be there for a long period of time and not have the sterile type of environment they used to have when they went into this type of a treatment center,” Beall said.
Another way hospitals and engineers are working together for the benefit of patients is by creating flexible environments able to adapt to different patients’ needs. “I have seen a push in the last five years to really make hospital spaces much more flexible in nature, especially when it comes to the patient experience, because a lot of reimbursement now is tied to patient satisfaction and no repeat business on the same illness,” Gilmore said. “In health care today, the smart designs are going to be very flexible in nature, so that we aren’t continually ripping out stuff, putting in stuff and then five years later having to rip it out because of a new technology.”
P2S is working with a Los Angeles hospital on what Gilmore called a “room of the future.” When completed, a patient would be able to check in at the front desk or a kiosk, and would receive a mobile tablet device that would provide them access to their information and enable them to control various aspects of their environment. “When they get to their room, they are able to create their own environment through specialty lighting and almost scenery-type elements,” Gilmore said.
The room of the future also features large-scale wall installations for video, which would enable clinicians and patients, as well as their families, to review information together on a large scale. Having control over their own environment and access to their own health information would be a comforting benefit for patients, Gilmore noted.
California has no shortage of aging schools and universities, many of which may have met seismic safety standards at the time of their construction but do not meet modern standards.
“In California, we have probably one of the strictest building codes in the world, and it’s a constant struggle to keep up with it,” Paul Soltis, vice president of geotechnical operations for Twining, a Douglas Park-based engineering firm, noted. “In California the building codes change every three years, and it seems to get more and more strict, especially with respect to the seismic stuff. It leads to us engineers having to figure out ways to retrofit existing buildings to make them work,” he said.
As Soltis put it, when it comes to schools, the challenge is making sure classrooms are as safe as possible and function properly “without breaking the bank of the school that you’re working for.”
One of Twining’s recent projects accomplished just that. When California State University, Long Beach (CSULB) was planning to build a new student recreational and wellness center, they contracted with Twining for construction work. They got more than they asked for when Soltis and his team reviewed the project plans and came up with a cost-saving alternative.
Twining, a Long Beach-based engineering firm, offered an alternative, cost-saving design for the groundwork for the Student Recreation & Wellness Center at California State University, Long Beach. (Photograph by the Business Journal’s Larry Duncan)
“They originally had the idea that, in order to properly support the building, they were going to remove 10 to 13 feet of the onsite soil upon which to build the building, and effectively replace most of it with gravel,” Soltis recalled. He and his team had doubts about the plan, and expressed them to the university. Removing so much soil would require many truck trips, which would represent a significant on-campus disruption and disturbance to neighboring residents, he explained.
“The alternative was a system called geo piers,” Soltis said. Instead of removing soil throughout the project site, rock columns were placed in 15-foot-deep holes beneath the structure’s footings. “Instead of excavating and replacing the entire site, you just do it selectively below the foundations where it’s needed,” he explained.
CSULB listened to Twining, and decided to go with their new plan. “That saved them probably $1-to-$2 million,” said Soltis.
When existing campus buildings represent good space conditions for students, a cost-saving measure (as opposed to building a new structure) that also avoids creating excess waste is retrofitting and modernizing the structures, according to Lance Kenyon, a partner at MHP.
Engineers are able to run computer tests to determine how well buildings can stand up to earthquakes, which may help determine when retrofitting is an option, rather than rebuilding. “You can model a building on the computer and really predict its behavior,” Kenyon said. “You can put in an old existing earthquake record and actually shake the building on your computer with an earthquake that occurred in the past and see how it performs.”
“Most of the existing buildings can be modernized,” Kenyon said. “They can become really good buildings as long as the space plan is good enough to start with.”
But, he pointed out, aging school buildings often come with many issues.
“You know, ADA [American Disability Act] laws have changed, and older buildings don’t have ramps. There are stairs everywhere, and that’s a big problem,” Kenyon said. “Structural safety, seismic safety is a huge issue,” he added, as are insufficient insulation, heating and cooling.
MHP recently upgraded CSULB’s Liberal Arts buildings for seismic safety, ADA access, and heating and cooling. “It’s not rocket science to fix these things. It’s science, but it’s not rocket science,” Kenyon said.
Older school buildings often aren’t as energy efficient as they could be, Charles Musser, electrical engineer and project manager for P2S Engineering, observed. “One big modernization aspect that schools are pursuing has to do with energy efficiency,” he said. Simple fixes include updating existing lighting fixtures with LEDs, which save energy, or installing sensors on the windows of classrooms to automatically adjust the amount of artificial light in the room based upon the natural light coming in, he explained.
Some universities are considering building on-campus cogeneration plants, which simultaneously generate power, heating and cooling for facilities. “It’s kind of expensive to build those, but, once you’ve got one, you’re going to save 50 percent on your electricity,” Soltis said. These plants are typically also fueled by natural gas, which is considered a clean source of energy, he noted.
Musser pointed out that, by cutting back on energy use or even generating their own energy, schools are able to save funds and put them towards other resources, such as teachers or supplies.
Energy efficient lighting may also hold promise for creating more learning-conducive environments at schools, Musser said. Studies have shown that LED colored lights may influence student learning, he noted. “For example, if the color blue helps creative learning, when it is art class time, the color scheme in the room could shift to a blue tone,” he explained. “It could not only help with being able to learn better, but also it would help the kids recognize [the change in subject].”
Engineers are also helping implement new technologies that aid in student learning and student-teacher interaction.
“One thing we’re doing at a lot of schools is called smart boards,” Musser said. “It’s kind of like a white board, but you can project on it from the computer or the Internet,” he explained. “What you’re writing can be recorded as well, so that can be posted to the Internet . . . and kids could basically have a recap of what was taught that was captured real time.”
In the end, Musser emphasized that the end goal of engineering for schools is working within the means of the educational institutions to achieve necessary functionality and usability.