Hidden Opportunities

A growing school-age population has made it necessary to add classroom space in an increasingly overburdened school system. However, the issue is about more than space, it is about what kind of space. To accommodate today's educational programs, administrators must create flexible, contemporary space to meet changing needs. Yet, the community's schools are aging, built during a time when needs were not so diverse. And, space is needed now, not in five years when a new project would be completed.

As a matter of course, the first step for school officials faced with these types of challenges is to examine how existing facilities might be maximized and/or expanded. Unfortunately, so much piecemeal expansion of existing buildings has occurred over the years that it is often assumed that an existing building is maxed out. Older structures, which may have been abandoned, might not be considered. A district may reach the conclusion that a new building is the best way to meet today's needs, despite the time it takes to complete such an undertaking.

Hide and seek While it is true that a significant percentage of school buildings may be maxed out or pose serious structural deterioration and maintenance problems, close scrutiny often will reveal hidden opportunities in renovation not seen on initial assessment.

There is a price tag, of course, attached to any school project, be it renovation of existing space or building anew. With the need for modernized facilities, project costs can skyrocket and strap local budgets. Overburdened and skeptical taxpayers defeat school bonding referendums; demand to know where dollars are going, and that their school facilities provide added value by meeting community-wide needs, as well as educational needs.

All of this demands intense examination of how schools can meet modern educational needs, service a diverse constituency of students and citizens, enhance neighborhoods, and do it all efficiently and economically. Maximizing the inherent value of existing facilities through renovation may be the answer, one that fits neatly into the proposed National School Infrastructure Act, which proposes federal funding support for modernizing schools.

Exploring options Administrators should explore all options before developing a strategic plan. It is easy to paint walls, fix ceilings, add new lighting-essentially, make old spaces look new. However, it is the not-so-obvious opportunities that result from strategic decisions to preserve, enhance and transform, which provide the greatest possible benefits of renovation.

One of the first steps is to look at current facilities carefully and determine if they will fit the needs. For example, maybe an old auditorium can be transformed or adjacent property can be purchased for building expansion. By reconfiguring infrastructure, new needs may be easier to meet. Thinking in this kind of big-picture sense will reveal the hidden opportunities never imagined. It all starts with addressing a range of critical issues.

Begin by assessing the ability to reconfigure existing space for modern demands. Do not assume older buildings cannot accommodate present and future needs. Certainly, not all outdated structures are salvageable, nor can the y be reconfigured at reasonable expense. It is only through assessment that administrators can make these determinations be made. Assessment considerations include:

-Programmatic needs. Determine how the existing structure might meet, or be able to meet, program needs. -Capacity and flexibility of the existing structural system. It is often assumed, for example, that in older buildings virtually all the walls are bearing walls-critical to holding up the structure. This is not necessarily true and creative reconfiguration often is possible. Another common mistake is to view an existing structure only in its original context. There are numerous examples of total space transformations throughout the country, including adaptation of existing specialty-use spaces for completely different usage. -Traffic and parking requirements. If the school is on a busy street and the front of the building is only 20 feet from the curb, there may be a problem. One option could be relocating an entrance and totally reorienting the flow of the facility. -Property acquisition. It is critical to know the land surrounding the property and how it might play into the district's vision. Acquiring that one, critical piece of property to properly expand parking, for example, could create a domino effect that might make all the difference in the world. -Underground utility capacity. Water supply and sewer/septic infrastructure could impact how easy it is to expand.

Added-value benefits Added-value can mean many things, from the standpoint of the physical facility and the type of usable space, which only can be created through renovation, to other considerations, such as enhancement of nearby areas, preservation of a community landmark and boosting of community pride.

>From the facility standpoint, renovation often can result in dramatic, inspiring spaces that might not be economically feasible in new construction. For example, conversion of a dilapidated auditorium or gymnasium into a new media center might preserve stunning architectural detail and create an inspiring, high-ceilinged room that would never be considered in new construction.

>From the community standpoint, older school buildings often are located in established neighborhoods that cry out for redevelopment. Renovating an older school directly enhances the neighborhood in which the school sits. Also, it can serve as a catalyst for additional improvements and community investment, such as new sidewalks, street lighting, landscaping, etc. This approach often builds community pride and restores an aging structure to its proper role as a tangible community asset.

It is important to remember that older school buildings in established neighborhoods not only have a physical history, but a human history. Often, thousands of students who walked the hallways of an school continue to live in the community and have an emotional attachment to the school. This is a constituency of support that should be considered.

In considering the historic value of a facility, remember that if a building is considered a historic landmark or is located in an historic district, there could be limitations in how the structure may be altered.

Cost-benefit ratio School construction costs across the country have reached a point where it has become financially stressful for many communities. Taxpayers are slowly coming to recognize that new or renovated school facilities represent a community investment beyond a facility's primary educational role.

Every project has its own cost implications depending upon need and circumstances, and renovation is not always the least expensive way to create new space. However, the question of cost is ideally examined from a standpoint of value and investment, versus sheer dollars and cents. When considering renovation, always remember that there is an inherent dollar value attached to the existing structure, which must be taken into account.

When the decision was made in Torrington, Connecticut, to build a new elementary school on the outskirts of town as opposed to rehabilitating the nearly 80-year-old Vogel-Wetmore Schools in the town's historic district, proponents of renovation protested, eventually overturning the decision. Once renovation was chosen, the challenge was clear: How can these ancient buildings on highly restrictive sites be converted into modern facilities meeting today's educational demands?

The two buildings, neither of which offered adequate capacity, were separated by a small cross street. One of the schools, Wetmore, was deemed structurally inadequate and demolished. The architect proposed to renovate the Vogel School, close the cross street, build a new one-story facility on the site formerly occupied by Wetmore, and join the two with an airy, linear new main entrance and passageway across the now-closed Church Street.

The choice to close Church Street was for the creation of a landscaped pocket park between the two structures, for the enjoyment of students, faculty and citizens. The entire project met with universal praise, not only for meeting the community's educational needs, but for preserving a landmark building in an all-important historic section of the city, while introducing a valuable landscaped amenity to this part of town.

The deteriorating Yalesville School in Wallingford, Conn., had been closed for a number of years when the town opted to renovate the 30,000-square-foot building and complement it with a 42,000-square-foot addition, instead of building smaller additions to several other schools. Like many older schools, the facility housed a combination auditorium/gymnasium that was inadequate to serve either purpose for today's students.

The school building committee was perplexed as to what to do with this large, critical space, which also was located in a place of architectural prominence on a main corridor. Consideration was given to breaking up the space and converting it into classrooms, but such a plan was inefficient and contrary to its architectural character.

The architect proposed a plan to convert the space into a state-of-the-art media center. This created a cost-effective opportunity to design a dramatic, light-filled, study space with 16-foot ceilings and floor-to-ceiling windows.

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