Facility Planning: Surplus Space

Another round of school closings! Too much space, too few kids, and taxpayers are paying to operate and maintain empty space. Enrollment fluctuations create nightmares for administrators, staff, students and parents.

But wait! Don’t abandon those school facilities just yet. Let’s review what we know about the school-age population:

•Student enrollment peaked in 1970 with 49.6 million school-age children. The U.S. Census population was 203 million.

•Enrollment declined to about 40 million by 1987, and districts were closing and disposing of schools.

•Enrollment increased to 49.8 million students by 2008-09 to break the almost 40-year-old record.

•U.S. population is estimated to be 310,232,863 in 2010 according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

•In 1970, school-age children comprised about 24 percent of the population; in 2010, about 16 percent.

•The U.S. Census Bureau is estimating population will reach 439 million by 2050.

•The United States could have 70 million school-age children in 2050 if the school-age population remained at 16 percent.

Bottom line: Don’t throw away those schools just yet.

In 1979, I co-authored a publication and slide show on the adaptive reuse of surplus schools for the American Institute of Architects’ Committee of Architecture for Education (CAE).

In 1981, Minneapolis was planning to close 18 schools. The CAE met on-site to conduct a "design-in." The district’s director of facilities selected a school in the area for studying adaptive reuse—today the term is "repurpose." Models and plans for "interim reuse" or "interim repurpose" were created—that is, designs for future non-educational use that would accommodate re-conversion to school use sometime in the future.

The selected school was across the street from a large medical campus. Architects and educational planners developed studies that illustrated how to phase in and out educational use with other uses, including medical and corporate. The studies became a presentation for the school board to neighborhoods and the foundation for an extended project on a national scale.

If your district sees long-term potential for enrollment growth, you may want to evaluate whether short-term use by others or just closing the building is a viable option. "Mothballing" a building for future use requires professional guidance and proper preparation. Vacant schools can be vandalized or left to deteriorate. When vacant schools are needed again to educate children, facility managers may find mold, roof leaks, peeling paint and systems needing extensive repairs. Reopening a building after a lengthy period of non-use may require extensive code updating.

For example, a new elementary school was completed in 2000 in a large metropolitan district. By 2005, enrollment had declined, and the district needed to close several schools, including the recently built elementary. The district decided to "mothball" the new building.

In 2009-10, this school reopened. Unfortunately, the district allocated the least amount of money and time when it closed the facility, and a number of repairs were necessary even after a short period of non-use. The district was maintaining minimal heat in the winter months to keep the building warm, but equipment such as the chiller was not maintained.

Districts should consider creative repurposing of surplus schools with an eye to future educational reuse. Finding an appropriate school site in a populated area can be difficult. An existing building may be the best choice for future reuse as a school.

Rydeen, FAIA, is an architect/facility planning specialist and former president of Armstrong, Torseth, Skold & Rydeen, Inc. (ATS&R), Minneapolis. [email protected].

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