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Building School Safe Rooms to Withstand Severe Weather


Why are schools spending money on buildings they hope never to use? Throughout the Midwest and Southeast, this is exactly what’s happening as schools prepare to protect students during severe weather events.

Many school districts are investing in safe rooms built to withstand tornadoes and other strong storms. These facilities typically cost $1 to $2 million, or anywhere from $20 to $35 per square foot. Architects typically recommend allowing five to ten square feet per student seeking shelter in the facility. For instance, a 5,000-square-foot safe room would be able to shelter a maximum of 1,000 students. In typical conditions, it would take ten months to construct this size facility.

Safe room at Theodore Jones Elementary in Conway

Constructing a safe room that meets FEMA standards requires special building methods at every point. First, the school must choose a location for the safe room that is close enough to the school so students can quickly seek shelter. Second, the contractor installs the building pad with oversized footings around the perimeter. These oversized footings securely anchor the rest of the building, wind-proofing it.

The walls then come into play. These are no regular concrete walls. Instead, they are constructed out of 12-inch CMU blocks. Rebar that is attached to the oversized footings referenced earlier is threaded through these blocks. Once the wall reaches a height of four feet, any openings in the blocks are filled with grout and topped off with a horizontal bond beam and more rebar, creating one four-foot “lift.” Storm shelters consistently measure 20 feet tall, so each of the shelter’s four walls will consist of five lifts.

Now, you might be asking, why are the buildings so tall? That has everything to do with the way the roof is constructed. The roof is attached to the walls using precast double-T joints. These fit into the walls like puzzle pieces, and then are secured using welding plates on top of the block walls and threaded hangers attached to the rebar.

Finally, the safe room’s FEMA-rated access doors are made from re-enforced steel and fitted into extra re-enforced doorframes. All of these doors are outfitted with access controls, which are tied into the emergency system. Whenever the emergency system sends out a tornado notification, the doors automatically unlock, allowing consistent and immediate access not only for students, but for community members that might seek shelter outside of school hours. In this way, the safe room transforms from just a student safety measure to a place for the entire community to use.

Interior at Theodore Elementary School safe room

Going back to the original question, how do school districts with limited facility dollars get the most out of a necessary and utilitarian safe room? Most schools opt to spend extra money to outfit the safe room to serve another purpose. Commonly, safe rooms pull double duty as auxiliary gymnasiums or cafeterias. This raises an additional concern for most school administrators—with concrete walls, floors, and ceilings, how can we control the noise level when the room is full of children? The answer—acoustical panels. Not surprisingly, many school districts opt for this add-on.

With the close location to other school buildings, many school administrators are also concerned about the facility’s exterior appearance. With the help of a designer, schools can create a brick façade or paint scheme that contractors can easily execute, disguising the block underneath. Because these facilities have no windows, they present a great opportunity for a large mural or depiction of the school’s mascot.

Nabholz has become Arkansas’ expert in safe room construction. With over 37 safe room projects under our belt, Nabholz’ construction experts can deliver the best safe room option customized for your district.

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