Educational spaces hold immense power in shaping the minds and experiences of future generations, especially in children’s formative years. The physical spaces where learning takes place must support that goal—more than just a structure, they are environments that influence creativity, collaboration, and innovation. As such, the design and infrastructure of educational buildings play a crucial role in fostering an environment conducive to learning. This is not always the current reality, however–tens of thousands of educational buildings and institutions across the country face the risk of moisture and water damage. 

Offering a potential solution, the Biden-Harris Administration’s Renew America’s Schools Program, a $500-million initiative to transform the infrastructure of K–12 public schools, marks a new turning point for education infrastructure nationwide. This program acknowledges the widespread need for energy-efficient upgrades, with 30% of applicants desiring enhancements to their building envelope. A key component of the building envelope is Air and Water-Resistive Barrier (AWB) systems, vital to safeguarding educational structures. Whether or not a school is a recipient of this new grant, the building enclosure community should consider AWB systems to help protect these cherished institutions. 


Why AWB Systems?

Serving as guardians of structural integrity, AWB systems limit air and water leakage by effectively sealing the building envelope. Air barriers prevent air from entering or leaving a structure, while water barriers keep moisture from permeating the building envelope. This can help maintain a consistent indoor climate and prevent moisture-related damage such as mold growth, rot, and corrosion. When installed properly, AWB systems are highly effective in reducing energy consumption, potentially resulting in reduced cost of general building maintenance, HVAC upkeep, utility bills, and recurring repairs due to moisture damage–considerations especially significant when navigating limited education budgets.*

AWB systems can also help improve the health and wellness of the building’s inhabitants. Extreme events such as hurricanes, drought, wind storms, and severe storms carry the potential to damage a building’s infrastructure tremendously, and as the climate continues to become more unpredictable and hazardous, AWB systems offer an additional layer of protection against the elements. These systems can also help enable a well-designed ventilation system to ensure maximum comfort and fresh air. Preventing dangerous exposure to the elements as well as aiding in retaining a consistent indoor climate, AWB systems help enable a comfortable, ventilated, and durable environment. 

What is more, AWB systems can allow educational facilities to contribute to the rapidly growing–and very much necessary–global commitment to a more sustainable future. Buildings are significant contributors to energy-related emissions, and AWB systems can help lighten the load (and, potentially, harmful emissions) on HVAC systems working overtime to prevent thermal loss, leading to significant energy savings.* Some AWB systems can contribute toward optimized energy performance and improved indoor air quality for building occupants to meet the requirements of the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED).


Navigating the Dos and Don’ts

Improper installation and specification of AWB systems, however, may hinder the positive impacts of these systems in educational spaces. A strategic and detailed review of existing conditions, location, as well as future climate predictions, is a vital first step in determining the exact type of AWB systems necessary, and their precise application. Additionally, the symbiosis between the building’s design and even the materials selected can make or break the successful installation of AWB systems. From fluid-applied membranes sprayed onto walls to adhered-sheet-applied barriers rolled onto surfaces and lapped at the seams, the choices are vast. Hasty selections may result in costly, time-consuming, and dangerous conditions and repairs for students and the administration. 

The commitment to student’s health, protection, and well-being does not cease after installation, either. Investing in staff and facility managers’ training and knowledge of the systems, their regular upkeep, and proactive potential malfunction detection is crucial. Damage, lack of maintenance, or misunderstanding the AWB systems’ interconnectivity with the HVAC system can have a drastic trickle-down impact on the rest of the buildings’ functioning, creating an unsafe environment for students and hindering their education. Neglecting these measures risks compromising the safety and educational experience of students.

The significance of educational spaces in shaping our future cannot be overstated. These environments nurture the development of young minds and serve as a stepping stone to success. The current reality poses a threat to that mission as educational infrastructure continues to degrade, and AWB systems are pivotal components in safeguarding these spaces. Their ability to not only prevent water damage and enhance energy efficiency but also help contribute to the health and well-being of students and staff is key to retaining the level of quality educational spaces demand for students to thrive. 

The benefits of AWB systems extend beyond potential cost savings to encompass environmental sustainability and resilience against the impacts of climate change. However, successful implementation requires careful consideration of factors such as location, resilient design, and proper installation techniques. The commitment to maintaining these systems doesn't end with installation. Ongoing training and vigilant maintenance are essential to ensure their continued effectiveness. Facility managers should be equipped with the knowledge to inspect the AWB systems regularly to check on their continued effectiveness. Swift attention is essential to enable maximum durability of the barrier system throughout the construction process and the lifespan of the structure.

The Biden-Harris Administration's Renew America’s Schools Program has set the stage, highlighting the urgency and potential for change–but it is up to individual educational institutions, architects, and community representatives to move the needle. Prioritizing the integration and upkeep of AWB systems in educational infrastructure is not just a matter of practicality but a commitment to fostering a safe, healthy, and conducive environment for the minds of tomorrow to flourish. By investing in these measures, educational institutions can uphold their duty to shape a brighter future for generations to come.


*Energy cost savings are not guaranteed and the amount of savings may vary based on climate zone, utility rates, radiative properties of roofing products, insulation levels, HVAC equipment efficiency and other factors.