Educational Facility Renovation: Practical Guidance to Increase Long-term Sustainability while Reducing Anxiety

Representatives of academic institutions or school districts planning for the future of their facilities are faced with the question of replacement versus new construction. Long-term sustainability should be paramount in these decisions—but understanding what sustainability means for the long-term can be challenging.

After evaluating the existing Florida Ruffin Ridley School building, HMFH Architects used a combination of renovation and new construction to meet the needs of Brookline, Mass. The historically significant and beloved 1913 building, where John F. Kennedy attended grade school, was renovated. By adding new academic wings to replace two additions built in 1954 and 1974, the design created a single, unified 21st century school. PHOTO: Ed Wonsek

An aging school building may be a time-tested thread in the social fabric of a community but the extent and complexity of a renovation, including cost, adaptability, embodied carbon, operational efficiency and logistical issues, together with community and historic considerations, are all critical components in considering a building’s value and long-term sustainability. Systemically analyzing each of these issues is critical to lowering risk and increasing the value of any building or campus.

The following are three key areas of investigation to help make renovation decisions:

1: Understand Your Student and Staff Needs and the Adaptability of Your Facility

It is difficult to cite any facet of teaching and learning today resembling methods in place 50 years ago. Pressing issues, such as social and emotional health, equity, digital and remote teaching, and project-based learning were not part of the discussion when many existing school buildings were constructed. Understanding these issues and assessing your current needs is the critical first step in determining if an existing building can be adapted.

Not all existing buildings are able to accommodate multiple levels of programmatic change. However, if the character and form of your existing building allows for adaptation, there’s a good chance that it can meet your needs today and into the future.

A helpful comparison involves two buildings that were candidates for renovation into new educational spaces. The first was the 60-year-old Chapman School in Weymouth, Mass.; the second was a 100-year-old former industrial building in Boston.

A close review by HMFH Architects revealed the century-old industrial space to be more easily adapted into a school than transforming the Chapman School. The newer Chapman School suffered from fatal flaws. It was built primarily with concrete, which offers little flexibility for adding insulation or creating the contemporary spaces that the new program demanded. The floor-to-floor heights were too low to allow for new mechanical equipment. Further, it was built on several partial floor levels, which limited accessibility options. Unfortunately, insurmountable cost and constructability issues meant that new construction was ultimately necessary to meet the needs of the school district and its students.

The former industrial building, which is now the Boston Renaissance Charter Public School, had tall floor-to-floor heights, allowing ample space for mechanical systems and abundant daylight. Its simple rectangular form and large expanses of internal open space were easy to reconfigure to meet program needs. Each of these factors contributed to a straightforward and cost-effective renovation.

2: Evaluate Existing Conditions and Develop Budgets

Surprisingly, a century-old industrial building proved to be a strong candidate for adaptation while providing embodied-carbon sustainability benefits. It was renovated into dynamic learning and social spaces for the Boston Renaissance Charter Public School. TOP PHOTO: courtesy HMFH Architects BOTTOM PHOTO: Anton Grassl

Existing buildings conceal many secrets. Hidden problems can elevate the risk of additional costs arising during construction. This uncertainty is compounded in buildings previously renovated, where subpar design or construction increases the unknowns. To mitigate these risks, you must understand the current state of your building as accurately as possible.

Review of the original plans and any as-built drawings helps reveal problems and opportunities. Such documents will not always reflect what was built or previously renovated but they are still helpful. To understand concealed conditions, you may need to investigate through selective demolition—opening up walls and ceilings, for example—to identify hidden problems and confirm conditions of existing materials and building systems.

Bringing consultants on board to help evaluate an existing structure is very useful: An exterior envelope consultant can determine the envelope’s condition and identify opportunities for increased energy efficiency. A structural engineer can determine the condition of the structure and advise about any building code or programmatic adaptations that may require structural modifications. Mechanical, electrical and plumbing engineers can be invaluable in assessing the condition of a building’s existing systems and recommending more efficient options. Such investigations will help determine the potential long-term sustainability of a building.

Once you establish a baseline of existing conditions, a preliminary budget for renovation can be compared to a budget for comparable new construction. It is key to also compare the operational costs of renovated and new options.

About the Author

Peter Rust, AIA
Peter Rust, AIA, is an architect and associate at HMFH Architects with 17 years of experience. His expertise focuses on the design of highly complex, public and private educational renovation projects.

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