Building Resilience

4J should invest in safe infrastructure

The Eugene 4J School District is preparing to issue a bond measure to fund building construction. Voters in either the November 2018 or May 2019 election would determine passage of the bond.

While the list of projects isn’t finalized, if the bond is approved, funds may be used to replace North Eugene High School and Edison Elementary School and to build additions on McCornack and Gilham elementary schools, among others. As a community, we are looking at investing tens or hundreds of millions of dollars in replacing and upgrading school buildings. We should take this opportunity to make sure our investments last.

As a taxpayer and father of a middle schooler, I support wise investments in school buildings and trust our school board to carefully weigh relevant factors. Two important decisions will influence the sustainability of these investments.

The first is the planned lifetime of new school buildings. Right now 4J designs school buildings to last 50 years. We should reconsider this practice simply because it is expensive.

It’s true that more than a dozen of our school buildings are 50 years old, but the reason they require replacement now is because they were designed to last only 50 years. Durability, upgradability and flexibility were not essential design criteria given to the architects who designed these buildings. Rather than funding only upgrades or additions, we are instead on the hook for replacing entire school buildings in the coming decades, at much greater cost.

Let’s not saddle the next generation with the same financial burden. Let’s challenge planners and architects to design extremely energy efficient buildings made to last 100 years or more.

The other critical decision is the seismic standard for these buildings. For readers new to western Oregon, here’s the skinny: Geologists tell us the seismic risk in Eugene is real. While Cascadia Subduction Zone earthquakes don’t happen frequently, they are powerful and long lasting (some five minutes of shaking!), and occur approximately every 300 years. The last one occurred 317 years ago. Bluntly, there is a 30 percent chance of a Cascadia Subduction Zone earthquake in the next 50 years.

When it comes to seismic performance, 4J buildings (and nearly all public buildings) currently meet the building code standard of “life safety.” This means occupants should be able to exit the building without it falling on their heads. That’s an extremely valuable safety standard.

Unfortunately, structures built to this standard are not expected to remain usable after the ground stops shaking. Many will require huge repairs before they can be safely used and still others will be so beyond repair they will be torn down (and replaced — if, or when, we can afford it).

This means that at precisely the moment when our world is turned upside down, when we need every possible advantage, it will be unlikely our school buildings will be useable. This also means that in the next 50 years there is a 30 percent chance that our investments of millions will be extensively damaged and require expensive repairs or demolition.

There is another way: New 4J school buildings (and really, all public buildings) should be constructed to an “immediate occupancy” standard. This standard means buildings will be structurally sound and usable as soon as the ground stops shaking. The power may be out and water may not work, but the roof will be solid and won’t threaten occupants during aftershocks.

Yes, there is an additional cost to this upgrade, but in the city of Beaverton it has been estimated to add less than 1 percent to the price tag of a new building. Analysis done for construction of Beaverton’s high school at South Copper Mountain showed this increased level of performance is estimated to cost $500,000 for a $90 million building. That’s cheap insurance that will lower the cost of post-earthquake repairs and make the building useful for sheltering when it’s needed most.

The crux of sustainability is broadening the factors that go into our decision-making, including extending our sense of responsibility beyond our own lifetimes. We should act in the best interest of those Eugeneans, like my 11-year-old daughter, who will be here in 2067. I guarantee they’ll be grateful that we took the long view.