Beyond Safety: How K12 Schools are Transforming Storm Shelters into Multi-Purpose Rooms

August 4th, 2023 - By

Most states don’t require schools to have storm shelters. The reason? Not every school can afford to build one. Storm shelters can cost anywhere from $1 million to $2 million and are only used on the rare occasion of severe weather. However, in more recent years, storm shelters have evolved. What was once a simple concrete box is now built to be a multi-functional space. Schools increasingly are turning shelters into cafeterias, gyms, sports facilities, auditoriums, and more to provide more utility than before. This way, the space is used throughout the year and can be easier to justify for the district and the community.

Greenbrier High School’s storm shelter that doubles as a volleyball and basketball court.

“The majority of our education clients decide to somehow incorporate the shelter into another functional space. It’s the most common type of storm shelter I’ve encountered in the past 15 years,” Nabholz Project Manager Jodi Phillips said. “I recommend proposing multi-purpose spaces to clients instead of just a hardened structure so they can get their money’s worth.”

Since 2015, Nabholz has worked with Greenbrier Public Schools in Arkansas to build six shelters that double as other facilities. Greenbrier High School’s newest storm shelter was completed in 2022. The shelter serves students daily as physical education, athletic, and flex spaces. In fact, it held a 5A school state volleyball tournament shortly after its completion. It is also FEMA rated – meaning the structure is qualified as a safe room that can withstand an EF5 tornado – and can house approximately 1,625 occupants during a storm. While structures are not always FEMA rated, Phillips recommends building the shelter to meet FEMA 361 guidelines regardless of if you plan to pursue the official rating.

“Your general contractor should work closely with you to guide you through your different options and make the best decision for your school,” he said. “That can include what you’ll need to make your shelter safe, how you can transform the space into a multi-purpose facility, and how you can qualify and apply for funding.”

Greenbrier High School safe room exterior.

In addition, schools can apply for FEMA safe room funding to get up to 75% of the structure’s eligible cost refunded. Eligible cost includes materials for the shelter’s structural integrity and practical use, such as walls, doors, electricity, plumbing, and fixtures. It’s important to note that FEMA will not reimburse additions that don’t add to the structure’s safety. Schools utilizing the space as a multi-purpose facility will take the cost of aesthetics, like paint and flooring, and sports equipment.

“The cost of the safe room will vary depending on what you’re turning the shelter into. For example, adding in a basketball or volleyball court means your shelter needs to be taller to accommodate that, which will cause the price to increase for that extra height,” Phillips said. “The biggest thing that drives the design, and therefore cost, is the function of the multi-purpose space, and design is always evolving with what you can do and how you can get the most out of your shelter for less.”

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