Canadian Consulting Engineer

School Design in the Era of P3s

May 1, 2011
By Nordahl Flakstad

Provincial officials and school boards are on a learning curve as Alberta carries out Canada's most ambitious public-private partnership (P3) school program to date.

Provincial officials and school boards are on a learning curve as Alberta carries out Canada’s most ambitious public-private partnership (P3) school program to date.

The Alberta Schools Alternative Procurement program with its catchy acronym ASAP was unveiled in late 2007 when the province announced plans to build 18 new schools in Calgary and Edmonton as a P3 project.

The success of ASAP Phase I prompted the launch last year of ASAP Phase II, which is under way and targets completing 10 more P3 schools by 2012.

Although Alberta has built portions of Calgary and Edmonton’s ring roads as P3s, the province didn’t bolt from the starting blocks as fast as some other jurisdictions in adopting the design, build, finance and maintain (DBFM) model.

John Gibson, director of ASAP at Alberta Infrastructure, says the P3 schools program was driven largely by necessity. By 2007, heady economic times and the influx of populations into Alberta, particularly to new Calgary and Edmonton neighbourhoods, caused a clamour for new schools.

The province was under pressure to respond quickly and cost effectively. At the time, the construction industry had trade-skills shortages, escalating costs, unmet deadlines, and plenty of work for builders and designers. Traditionally the province funds school construction through grants to school boards. However, with so many big projects on the order books, the one-school-at-a-time, design-bid-build approach, with individual school boards hiring their own architects, consulting engineers and contractors, seemed unlikely to bring the wanted results.

“We decided we needed to deliver schools on school boards’ behalf in bundles, and P3 lent itself to that,” explains Gibson.

With a decision made for the DBFM model, Alberta Infrastructure awarded the first P3 contract in 2008 to BBPP Alberta Schools Limited. The consortium had Babcock & Brown Public Partnerships as a majority owner, and included Barr Ryder Architects and Interior Designers, GEC Architecture; Honeywell Canada, and Bird-Graham Schools (a joint venture between Bird Design-Build and Graham Design Builders). Protostatix Engineering were the structural consultants, and Williams Engineering were consultants for the mechanical, electrical and civil design.

The Edmonton-based architects Barr Ryder had already worked with Alberta Infrastructure to develop four of five core designs suitable for elementary, middle and elementary-junior-high schools. Some design elements such as gymnasiums were standardized. But there were opportunities to modify the core to meet the needs of specific schools and the varied requirements of K-through-9 grade levels. As well, non-core modular classrooms can be removed or added in response to demand. The schools’ core areas vary from 3,300-5,800 square metres.

Less than 1% for contingency

With Alberta Infrastructure applying outcomes-based, rather than prescriptive, criteria, the ASAP program let the designers achieve the required ends by alternative means – potentially at less cost. Even within the constraints of the core designs and footprints, the program left room for innovation, particularly relative to energy use and sustainable design, and in the selection of materials and components. The schools all meet the LEED silver standard. The mandate in Phase II is to achieve a minimum of six LEED energy points.

The financial and operational models employed in both ASAP phases are similar. In return for payments by the province, the consortia commit to building the schools, then financing and maintaining them for 30 years. At the end of the term, full responsibility for the 30-year-old schools – in good condition and without deferred maintenance requirements – will be handed to the school boards. Meanwhile, over the 30-year P3 period, day-to-day school operations, including deciding educational and community use, and janitorial functions, will rest with school boards as the owners.

While the P3 approach eases the government’s upfront financing needs, Gibson notes that it also shifts risks that would otherwise be borne by the province or school boards to the consortia. Traditionally, boards have added a contingency cushion of up to 7% to school construction budgets to accommodate design changes and omissions, and to offset scope and schedule creep. With the risk shifted, Alberta Infrastructure is earmarking less than 1% for contingency.

The ASAP Phase II bidding process led to the selection in April 2010 of the B2L Partnership, consisting of: Gracorp Capital Advisors and HOCHTIEF PPP Solutions as project leads; Graham Design Build Services and Bird Design Build as the design-build team, and Honeywell responsible for maintenance and renewal.

GEC Architecture and Gibbs Gage Architects, both of Calgary, are the ASAP II architects of record. The key engineering consultants are TRL (structural), SNC Lavalin (mechanical and electrical), Terrain (civil in Edmonton) and BSEI (civil in Calgary area).

Although not part of the Phase II consortium, Barr Ryder was hired by Alberta Infrastructure as the bridging architect to work with boards to meet schools’ site-specific requirements.

Bundling brings economies of scale

Graham Construction vice-president Kees Cusveller outlines some advantages of bundling school construction. “We benefit from economies of scale. For example, all the boiler and air-handling units are the same. This allows for ease of maintenance and installation.”

Approaching a supplier with a potential order of two dozen or more units offers considerable puchasing leverage. A steel fabricator who can dedicate time and resources to manufacturing a series of similar structures can offer better prices and delivery schedules. The same applies to windows, flooring, doors and many other components.

Having two years of steady work for trades makes it easier to schedule subtrades and equipment. Cusveller estimates that up to 70 trades people are working at each ASAP II site (peaking at 1,000 overall) as they advance toward 2012 completion.

Based on economies of scale, improved risk management, innovation and workflow efficiencies, plus other savings, over the 32 years (including two years of construction) ASAP I will save the Alberta government $97 million (2010 dollars). Schools that would have cost a total of $731 million via traditional delivery will cost $634 million through P3. Comparable savings projected for ASAP II are $105 million (in current dollars) based on a total price of $358 million through traditional delivery, against $253 million under DBFM.

Cusveller believes the guarantee for on-time completion at a fixed price, along with a 30-year warranty, makes P3 attractive for school projects. By placing the onus on the consortia, governments sidestep the temptation of postponing maintenance in favour of new construction. After all, Cusveller observes, “politicians don’t usually get re-elected by promising a new roof or new windows, much as they may be needed.”

Alberta Instructure continues to review the lessons of ASAP. According to John Gibson, potential P3 follow-ups include more schools, hospitals, seniors housing, and water/wastewater treatment.

Barr Ryder’s Steven Bushnell offers a more nuanced assessment. He cautions: “I think it can be a very time-sensitive model. At the time ASAP I was done, given the market condition and the challenges of inflation and ability to get contractors and subtrades, it appears to have been the right thing to do. As Phase I has been constructed and Phase II is underway, now would be an appropriate time to evaluate the construction delivery method with today’s economic environment and also the programmatic value of the core-school model.” cce

 Nordahl Flakstad is a freelancer writer based in Edmonton.

Sidebar 1

Mechanical engineering shar
es basic concepts

Darryl Doucet, P.Eng., a principal with Williams Engineering Canada, oversaw the mechanical group working on the Phase I schools. His firm was also involved in the 18 schools’ electrical and civil design.

The schools were built following three basic general design models, but each one needed to accommodate the particularities of its location. “The outsides were configured similarly,” Doucet notes, “but really there were modifications within that design. They were similar but not that similar.” For instance, the slope of the land or the ground conditions at a particular school usually required site-specific solutions. And the orientation of a given school typically impacted mechanical loading and, for instance, the degree to which a specific school could use passive heating.

While the approach did not generate any particular cost savings in terms of repeating detailed design or drawings, the general concepts were replicated. In that sense, the wheel did not have to be reinvented for each school and this allowed the designers to capture some economies of scale at the conceptual design stage.

Importantly, says Doucet, P3 designs “allow a lot more freedom to look at lifecycle costing.” With such a P3 approach, there is a tendency to evaluate the cost of a design feature or component relative to its value over a longer timeframe instead of merely focusing on upfront costs. This, Doucet suggests, can prompt a different mindset on the part of design engineers as they evaluate designs, components and costs.

Exhaustive design reviews were held to ensure the constructability of the buildings and their ongoing maintenance. Meetings were held once a week with the contractor and once a month with user groups.

Sidebar 2

ASAP Phase I Schools HVAC, Plumbing & Communications

  • Thermal displacement ventilation. This approach discharges supply air at low velocity near the floor to form a pool of conditioned air; when warmed the air rises to the ceiling and exits through exhaust. The benefits compared to conventional mixing type ventilation are that heating/cooling loads are only affected in the lower occupied zone, and the indoor air quality in this zone is improved.
  • Demand-controlled ventilation by CO2 sensors and DDC controls.
  • Perimeter passive radiant heating panels suspended from structure.
  • Heating by condensing boilers with a cascading heating loop. The boilers reduce the heating water flow rate by 66% compared to conventional heating systems and require a lower return water temperature.
  • Air handling systems with heat recovery.
  • Mechanical cooling to server rooms combined with free-cooling air systems to classrooms and administration areas as conditions permit.
  • Operable windows.
  • Voice and data cabling using latest VOIP protocols.
  • Low flow and sensor-operated plumbing.
  • All components selected for life expectancy of 30 years.


  • Designed to consume less than 1 watt/sq.ft. of lighting power density.
  • T5 and T8 lamps and electronic ballasts.
  • Daylight sensors for controlling fluorescent lighting.
  • Occupancy sensors in storage, washrooms and service rooms.
  • Exterior “dark sky” lighting.

Williams Engineering Canada mechanical-electrical consulting engineers


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