Sonacom’s Early Involvement in CBC Design Pays Off


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By Peter Downs

Many people think of technology as an add-on: you construct your building and then add-on such things as telephones, the computer system, and the security system. Christian Brothers College High School in St. Louis took a different tack. The school’s leaders decided early on to integrate technology into the design of their new campus and that saved them a bundle.

CBC contracted directly with Sonacom IT Partners to design, build and maintain all the low voltage systems in the new campus: data, building security, alarms, theatre, phones, and library; and brought Sonacom onto the project team before the detail design phase, instead of after the design was complete.

CBC is building a new high school campus in Town and Country, MO. The 225,000-square-foot campus is slated to open in September 2003. The $43 million budget for the new school includes approximately $5 million for low voltage technology systems.
“This is the first project where we’ve been this integrated into the design,” said Mike McNeil, Sonacom president. “It’s a new format for design build. Usually we come in after the HVAC and electrical design are completed and all we can do is tweak the result. We’re catching a lot of things now that normally we wouldn’t catch until we were in the building.”

Karen Engdorf, direct of technology at the high school, said Sonacom’s early involvement has saved the school a lot of money and frustration, though she declined to put a number to the savings. “Sonacom has been very good at showing us what was available,” she said. “If they had come in late, there would have been more change orders and more having to work around the plans.”
“We want the building to last 100 years,” said CBC spokesman John Hutchison. “We challenged both the architect and Sonacom to make it flexible.” For Sonacom, that meant loading up the infrastructure.
Classrooms at the new CBC will be set up with DVD, cable or satellite TV, and document cameras for overhead projection.
Every student will have a laptop computer. Teachers will be able to send Powerpoint presentations directly to each student’s computer and direct him to the web sites maintained by textbook publishers to provide supplementary material to the texts. Teachers also will be able to monitor what is on every computer in their classroom, lock students out of the internet, and turn control of the projector over to a student’s laptop.

On a basic level, Sonacom’s involvement made sure that communications pathways were not closely parallel to electrical pathways which cause interference. And the company’s calculation of the heat that the CPUs in 1,000 laptop computers will give off convinced the HVAC designer to increase the size of the cooling system.

Sonacom went beyond such basic issues, however. The company helped CBC decide to gut a classroom to test available technologies. That is where the advantages of early involvement became especially apparent. CBC tested monitors versus smart boards, for example, and decide not to use monitors anymore. Similar ease of use testing led the school to opt for control panels with buttons instead of touch screen.

While some teachers stay at a desk or podium while they lecture, and can use a stationary keypad, others walk around the room. Those teachers need a wireless keypad that is easy to handle and to hold and is not so powerful they are controlling computers in a different room.

One web board the school tried used a projector that hung from the ceiling about six feet in front of the board, but when teachers stood at the board the light shone directly in their eyes. Such comfort issues have a huge effect on whether a technology will be used effectively, or at all.

“In the demonstration room, we found we had to change a lot of things that are not part of the technology,” McNeil added. “We changed the lights, the blinds, the desks, the teaching station, and we’re still looking at options for the web board. It has saved us a lot of grief and money.”

With this approach, the school is trying to wrap building features around technology, instead of the other way around. “It all comes down to the teachers and students,” said Engdorf. “It is the real world wrapped around the laptop, so the curriculum is supported by what is online.”

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