Middle-Aged Thinking

To build or not to build? For school administrators across the country that is a common and often perplexing question.

These days, it is difficult enough to put together a bond package that will pass muster with wary taxpayers. A bigger challenge can be deciding what to ask for. For educators and administrators the choice is obvious--a brand new facility equipped with the latest technology tools, fully-stocked libraries and classrooms tailored for a comprehensive educational program.

For many localities, however, new construction is not always an option. A host of factors may preclude consideration of a new facility, such as demographics, construction and transition costs, as well as site availability. Larger districts may have to address functional inequities within the system, and focus on facility disparities in economically disadvantaged neighborhoods. In some cases, an old school building has become a cherished part of the community, and local sentiment may lean toward trying to extend its life a few more years until there is no choice but to move on.

Making decisions The older the building, however, the more difficult it is to make cost- effective renovations for revised building codes, ADA requirements and technology.

"Often, the school district is forced to make facility compromises that ultimately affect the quality of their educational program," says Phil Rohr, deputy superintendent of schools, School Board of Palm Beach County*?, Fla. "When the work is done, those compromises may not look as good as they did in the conceptual phase." Determining where to draw the line helps. "Our cut-off point for renovation is about 60 percent of the cost of new construction," says Frank Barzilla, assistant superintendent for facilities and construction, Pasadena Independent School District, Texas. "Even that amount is a huge commitment to what will still be an old building." But what about the vast inventory of middle-aged schools--the thousands of facilities that were constructed to educate the post-war Baby-Boom generation, who themselves are entering their middle years? These facilities sprang up as quickly as suburban housing tracts, and many are still considered to be the hub of older suburban areas.

Even the most foresighted designers of the 1950s and 1960s could not have dreamed of distance learning or CD-ROMs. School budgets were as tight then as they are today, and long-time durability was often sacrificed for expediency.

The decision to renovate an aging school facility is made more difficult because administrators are dealing with subjective issues (program needs) with objective factors (building condition and standards). The goal is to balance these considerations to give the best value to the educational process.

Assessing physical fitness Fortunately, there are ways a district may be able to make the most of its middle-aged schools, thereby avoiding transition costs, and get a first-class cost-effective educational facility. Certainly, the decision to build or renovate will not hinge on a single facility attribute. Each school district has its own set of opportunities, constraints and intangible factors to weigh.

Sound facility decision-making begins with sound analysis. A methodical and objective assessment of a school is essential for setting realistic spending priorities. This enables a district to make a more convincing presentation to voters, because evidence of the needs has been documented and analyzed.

Rohr notes that this approach is particularly important as many districts may have incomplete or outdated facilities records. As-built drawings for older buildings often are out of date or non-existent. "Incomplete assessments are almost always accompanied by unexpected problems that appear when work gets underway. Even a seemingly minor disruption in the design and construction process can have a significant impact on cost," he says.

Just as education programs revolve around reading and math, the process of assessing a middle-aged school's potential for renovation begins with the basics: the building's purpose. Rohr says that a less complex education mission usually means a less complex renovation effort. "Elementary schools are easier to upgrade than middle schools, which, in turn, are easier than high schools," he says. "The more features or special programs that you have or want to add, the more complicated the renovation becomes." Address the condition of a building's structural materials and components carefully. Obviously, sound walls, floors and roofing systems mean that resources may be devoted to other needs. However, these same attributes could compromise any plans to reconfigure classrooms and other interior spaces. For example, many middle-aged schools were built quickly to accommodate burgeoning enrollments. As a result, districts were forced to sacrifice quality building materials for expediency. That contrasts with many 1940s-era schools, which often have stone or concrete load-bearing walls that cannot be altered. The key for educational facilities today is flexibility, a quality that many older buildings do not have. Unless sheetrock or other materials were used for interior walls, the renovation efforts will be difficult and expensive.

The wired world These and other structural characteristics of middle-aged schools sometimes pose the biggest obstacles to implementing one of the highest educational priorities: technology. Electrical power and communications cabling is almost always the central issue. Few middle-aged schools had a sufficient number of outlets for the filmstrip projectors and phonographs of the past, let alone the computers and laser-disk players of today.

Concrete block walls and fixed ceilings limits the ability to install new device outlets or cable pathways. It may not be possible to hide cable pathways, a factor that may detract from the appearance of a classroom or corridor. In addition, space is at a premium. Finding room for servers, switching units and cross-connections may be difficult, especially in high schools and middle schools where more equipment is necessary.

When it comes to cabling, the instinct is to look for help from above. The available ceiling height will determine whether it is feasible to add new computer and communications lines, as wells as HVAC ducts and other building systems. However, such work might disturb asbestos, requiring costly remediation.

While wireless networks are more portable, they often offer few advantages for brick and block schools. The technology is more expensive, has limited bandwidth and can accommodate a limited number of users. The layout of the campus also may preclude its use as additional costly equipment is required to reach all the remote units. Even in a single building, signal degradation becomes a large factor due to the wall construction. And, there is still the need for cabling at the head end of the system.

Another emerging long-term issue for many schools is distance learning. Such communications systems require equipment, proper cabling and space.

Auditoriums often provide the obvious location, enabling the system investment to pay off in educational and community uses. With distance-learning practitioners stressing its value for small groups, however, the answer may be to convert one or more existing classrooms into a telecommunications center.

The price of efficiency Another important consideration for middle-aged schools is the operation and maintenance costs. While heating and chiller systems of the 1950s and 1960s may be as reliable as ever, many were not designed for energy efficiency.

Having experienced energy shortages and power crunches, many districts may wonder if there is anything else that can be done. Middle-aged schools may benefit from making changes in the load profile. For example, if cooling equipment is used only during a portion of the day, it may be possible to adapt the system with thermal storage technology, which operates mainly during non-peak hours. With the right application, the system's energy savings will make up for the added investment in a relatively short time.

Optimizing a building's load profile will be particularly important in states where electric utility deregulation is underway. Some utilities may penalize load shapes that are not advantageous to on-peak periods. On the other hand, there is the potential for new services that have not been offered in the past. One example is to move the electric meter to the refined energy source (e.g., chilled water, steam or hot water), rather than the electricity used for the process itself. Several utilities are offering this turnkey service through non-regulated subsidiaries.

A middle-aged school's building systems also may be affected by changes in programming. For example, computers and telecommunications systems place more demands on the air-conditioning system. Reoriented classrooms may require new ductwork and vents. Do not forget the building's support operations. Many schools are converting traditional cafeteria food service into specialized offerings, such as fast food and salad bars. Space and equipment layouts may not support this need.

Then there is the condition of the cooling system. CFC refrigerants R11 and R12, commonly used in older systems, are no longer produced. Replacement quantities are becoming scarce and expensive. Although it may be possible to convert the system to a new refrigerant (R124 or R134a for example), equipment more than 10 years old will probably require replacement.

A new or upgraded HVAC system may not be cost-prohibitive, however. Through automated controls and other high-tech features, technology has made these systems easy to operate and maintain. The payback period will vary, depending on the size and complexity of the system.

If the assessment of a middle-aged school fails to pass the test for renovation, do not automatically assume that the building is little more than surplus.

There may be alternative or adaptive-reuse applications that will help ensure a productive retirement, such as an administrative center, special-education programs or other community needs. While many of the deficiencies identified in the assessment will still require attention, adapting the facility to other uses may result in a smaller, less expensive upgrade program, and the ability to tap other public funding sources. There also may be the potential for public-private partnerships.

Although middle-aged schools often epitomize the image of an instructional facility, the same creativity that has been fostered inside its walls for more than 30 years may hold the key to its ability to serve a community for another 30 years. An education program need not be held hostage by the condition of a middle-aged school. By conducting facility condition assessments on a regular basis, administrators can keep better track of facility assets, how well the buildings are serving the educational mission and what changes may be necessary to keep building inventory cost effective.

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