As important as the curb appeal of your facilities are, once kids walk into that building, parents will want to know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that it is a safe place for their kids to learn. There are three specific areas we want to address when it comes to creating a safe environment for your students using masonry construction: mold, fire, and wind.
The simple reason masonry withstands two of these elements so well is that it doesn’t contain the “food” that fuels either mold growth or fire. Both of these phenomena require nutrients if they are to take hold, and cellulose is their food of choice. Wet cellulose materials including paper, cardboard, drywall and wood are particularly conducive to the growth of mold, while the same materials serve as kindling for flames.
Mold, the most-talked about and most litigated villain in the educational community in Texas and beyond.
It’s microscopic in size, yet has cost school districts millions of dollars during the past two decades. The magnitude of the problem stems not from construction imperfections – entry points for water – roof, wall and plumbing leaks, but from building materials’ inability to forgive such imperfections.
These materials are often cellulose based – like drywall – or lack the breathability necessary for moisture release – like EIFS. The result? Buildings meant to last a half a century or more were failing after only a few years.
The new buzz word in this arena is IAQ, Indoor Air Quality.
Mold is one of the major factors that can negatively affect your schools’ IAQ. Poor IAQ translates into increased absenteeism among students suffering from asthma and increased maintenance and remediation costs for districts. The American Lung Association found that American children miss more than ten million school days each year because of asthma exacerbated by poor IAQ. With one of the highest average relative humidity levels in the country – rivaled only by Seattle – the Houston area is always going to provide conditions conducive to mold growth.
The question is, “What can we do to make our buildings as inhospitable to mold as possible?” Texas architect Chris Huckabee, whose Fort Worth-based firm specializes in educational design and construction believes “Masonry wall systems are one of the most important steps a school district can take to free itself from the grip the mold crisis has had on institutional construction throughout recent decades.”
The superintendent of a three-year-old Texas middle school which had to be almost completely demolished due to mold damage had more questions than answers, demanding, “My taxpayers will be paying for this building for another 25 years and we’re about it tear it down? How could this happen and, more importantly, how could we keep this from happening again?”
The answer: Masonry construction –when used as a building system that encompasses both interior and exterior walls – goes a long way toward eliminating the habitat mold needs to proliferate. Add terrazzo tile or some other water resistant masonry flooring, and you’ve taken care of all your exposed areas except the ceiling and roof.
If there is one underlying theme of this entire presentation, it’s why not do it right the first time rather than go back and fix it later?
Masonry won’t burn, melt, or emit toxic fumes.
Along those same lines, what if with fire, as with mold, you could eliminate the conditions that feed it? Even with our technological age, you will never have a paper-less school. Paper and other flammable materials are a part of our lives, but they don’t have to be a part of the building system that encases our students and staff. If flames ignite but don’t find adequate fuel, they won’t do much damage.
A masonry wall system reduces the risk of your building collapsing and continues to stand as an effective barrier between fire and your students long after other wall systems will have failed.
Specific fire ratings are required for different areas of a building. Of the six defined classes of fire-safe construction, masonry is the main component of the three most resistant. In addition, specific areas of fire resistance
smoke density and
are measured and rated. Masonry materials earn a perfect rating in all three, meaning they are deemed to have no propensity to spread flames, create smoke or to fuel a fire.
Codes now allow exempting a school from certain fire ratings in its construction materials if adequate sprinkler systems are in place. Unfortunately, according to the National Fire Incident Reporting System’s 1996 data, sprinkler failure was found in almost 40% of the total fires reviewed. More recently, American School & University reported in its May 2010 issue a more optimistic 90% success rate for sprinkler systems. This means that 90 percent of the time sprinkler systems will do their job as promised, while 10 percent of the time, whether due to human or mechanical error, sprinkler systems will not provide any of the protection you are counting on to ensure the safety of your students or protection of your facilities.
The benefit of a “passive” system like masonry construction and other fire resistant building materials is that they are there when you need them. Period.
No checking mechanical systems.
Its fire rating is good for the life of the building which could be a century or more.
Mold. Fire. Now – Wind.
School districts in the Houston Area have a vested interest in construction that can withstand hurricane force winds. Masonry construction is cited again and again as one of the common denominators among buildings that survive hurricanes and other high-wind conditions.
A 2004 study conducted by the Wind Science and Engineering Research Center at Texas Tech University demonstrated that a medium-sized wind-blown object, such as a 7.5-foot long 2 x 4, would penetrate walls built with vinyl or fiber-cement siding at a speed of 25 miles per hour. By comparison, the same object would need to travel at a speed exceeding 80 mph in order to penetrate a brick wall, even if it were only a veneer with traditional wood-frame construction – not a masonry wall system.
While total masonry construction, like Brick Veneer over Reinforced Concrete Block, wasn’t included in this particular study, data and the resulting building codes indicate that solid masonry infrastructure is the optimal system for storm resistance.
Examples of a masonry wall system’s structural integrity in the face of hurricane-force winds can be seen in these photos of the Bolivar peninsula and Crenshaw Middle School after the devastating landfall of hurricane Ike.
The Whole Building Design Guide, published by the National Institute of Building Sciences, recommends only two types of exterior wall construction for achieving the enhanced missile resistance necessary to weather a hurricane unscathed : reinforced cast-in-place concrete or reinforced and fully grouted Concrete Masonry Units.
The Guide goes on to say that of the two, reinforced CMU offers greater reliability (i.e., they have no coverings that can be blown off compromising the wall system’s structural integrity or contributing to hazardous, life-threatening, flying debris.) Hurricanes top the list of potential threats that cause parents in the Houston area to be more anxious than ever about the safety of their children.
Our schools are expected to be safe and “secure havens” for our children on a daily basis AND for our communities during times of major crises.