America's cities are dotted with older buildings that have distinct architectural character. Built from the mid-19th century through the 1940s, many of these structures stand empty, while others are used as factories, warehouses, department stores or schools. With urban school districts and universities facing a boom in school-age population and a shortage of facilities,it is impossible to ignore the tremendous opportunity these buildings can offer as safe, attractive and distinctive spaces for schools or colleges.
Many of these buildings are ideal for schools. They offer the key characteristics of successful educational spaces-rooms of the right size and proportion; high ceilings; large fenestration that provides good natural lighting and ventilation; and layouts that provide space for project-intensive learning.
These buildings also represent a great investment in building materials and human energy. Renovating them to meet new school requirements is an environmentally responsible strategy.
Historical structures often display an architectural dignity, a civic presence that enriches the urban fabric. The enduring quality of materials and construction, the crafted detailing and the symbolic references incorporated in the design rarely are represented in newer school construction. With thoughtful renovation and the incorporation of new technologies, these facilities can blend the cutting edge with historical continuity.
Although building renovation may cost more than new construction, a new structure may not have the quality of a historical building. A recent comparison indicated that constructing a new school with the quality and character of an older structure would cost 16 to 20 percent more than renovating and updating a historical building.
A creative design and client team can have great success adapting facilities to new educational uses. The result is a distinctive place that can improve the learning that takes place and contributes to a city's urban character.
Once and future schools
Facilities originally built as schools, even if more than 100 years old, are among the most appropriate for revitalization as modern educational facilities. The argument against reuse of turn-of-the-century school buildings is strong and may seem persuasive, especially in communities where buildings have decaying plaster, falling ceilings, drafty windows, peeling layers of paint and decaying restrooms.
The indictment here, though, rests squarely on the shoulders of those responsible for poor maintenance programs and shoddy renovations. Even buildings that are little more than moldy corpses, shadows of their former glory and functionality, may still have "good bones." With the right attention, they could be successful and desirable educational institutions.
All renovations, whether of old schools or conversions of another building type, require careful planning. Working closely with a school or university, an architect must evaluate educational needs and analyze how the existing, expanded or adapted facilities can support these needs.
The need to paint a global picture before getting down to specific improvements does not necessarily mean delays. You can plot and evaluate possible solutions on paper in a consolidated study period, which allows everyone involved to define issues and determine teaching requirements before exploring how to address those issues.
The planning stage in any renovation is crucial for determining costs. Sound financial planning prevents the dispersal of limited funds on projects of limited effectiveness. The renovation of certain areas will be clear priorities, while you will relegate others to later phases.
Budgets and schedules often cause administrators and planners to be too conservative and prevent them from evaluating whether their entire facility works optimally. As a result, supposed improvements or expansions might do little to resolve deep-rooted problems. If a design team wishes to realize the best result with the least expenditure, it must not limit the project before examining all possibilities.
Integrating new facilities with those that are older and architecturally distinctive can be one of the biggest stumbling blocks and can lead to vociferous criticism. The crux of the problem lies in the need to enhance-or at least protect-the dignity of the existing building design. The new space need not and should not replicate the existing structure. Rather, there should be a respectful dialogue between the two.
For example, at the Spence School, a private K-12 school in New York City, the renovation successfully joined a new classroom and gym addition to the original 1929 building by incorporating reinterpreted elements of the original in the new facade. These elements were combined in a composition that referenced the proportions and patterns of the building. The material palette of brick and limestone, and the details of the windows, parapets and railings resulted from careful study of the original building.
The same approach was used for renovating the building's interior. The library/media center grew out of the redefinition of the overcrowded, but original, intimate wood-paneled library. The design reincorporated much of the original woodwork, as well as some of the original building details, such as arched entries and wood window surrounds. These elements were referenced in the more modern design and in the library furniture. The result is a technologically advanced center that embraces the future while acknowledging the school's sense of continuity and tradition.
The approach to the expansion of the Berkeley Carroll School in Brooklyn also took its cues from the design of the original building. For all its character, this facility needed expanded program space and infrastructure improvements. The plan also recognized the need for interior and exterior places for impromptu student gatherings and exchanges.
Rather than add a wing to the existing building, the proposal called for a separate building. To complement rather than overshadow the existing structure, the new building was set back from the street and separated by a new courtyard. An articulated entry bay reinterprets the banding and details of the original building. The entry gives scale and presence to the courtyard, which has become the favored place for student gatherings. On the second floor, the bay provides an interior gathering place. These steps allowed the stately building to retain its prominence, street presence and sense of place, and allowed school administrators to solve the functional issues.
Commerce becomes enlightenment
Other older urban structures are equally suited for school and university use: warehouses, factories, workshops or department stores. These so-called "palaces of commerce" also were created between the late 1880s and the 1940s. The New School University has discovered this truth. Its urban "campus" includes a number of 19th-century commercial buildings threaded through Manhattan's Greenwich Village.
One of the best examples is 55 West 13th Street, a nine-story former department store that is notable for its huge windows, abundant natural light and high ceilings. It includes an interdepartmental computer facility known as the Knowledge Union, an advanced multimedia laboratory with a Silicon Alley aesthetic. The design maintained the character of the two floors' loft space as much as possible. The concrete beams and ductwork were left exposed to view. Acknowledging the changing nature of this space, the computer wiring runs in accessible cable trays. The material palette is simple but vibrant, reflecting the creative work that occurs in this space.
The New School's Milano Graduate School has just moved into an early 1900s loft building on the corner of Fifth Avenue and 13th Street. The existing tenant continues to use the bottom two floors; the upper floors house the administrative center of the school, as well as offices and workspaces for the faculty and staff. The 25,000-square-foot renovation maximized the open space with exposures to the large Fifth Avenue windows. Again, the inherent character of the loft building was celebrated rather than concealed by added materials.
Another example is the Beginning with Children School (PS 333) in Brooklyn, N.Y., which is housed in a 1940s facility built originally as a research and manufacturing center for the Pfizer Corporation. The school is now renovating an adjacent existing building, rebuilding the original Pfizer building and adding a new gym complex on the existing foundations of already-demolished buildings. The high floor-to-ceiling heights of the existing building are matched in the new construction.
Again, the new construction takes its clues from the art moderne style of a 1940s building, yet it incorporates new materials and gestures appropriate to 2000. The complex, when completed, will act as an important functional and visual community.
One obstacle that frequently stymies design and construction teams working on older buildings is that the original architectural drawings no longer exist or are not reliable because of undocumented renovations. If this is the case, the planning stage should include a careful investigation of the building. This will reduce the number of unknowns. Unexpected discoveries always are made during the demolition phase, so it is prudent to maintain a budget contingency for unknown conditions.
In the years that a structure has existed, someone may very well have made changes that hid but did not destroy original detail. Just as art historians are able to remove layers of grime and painting from a work of art, architects and facility planners can guide construction crews as they reveal and restore these details. This allows schools and universities to reclaim architectural and decorative elements that could never be economically recreated today. One renovation of a school bathroom uncovered beautiful original mosaic tiles beneath a layer of deteriorated gypsum board. The mosaic tile became a set piece of the design.
Working with historic structures is exciting, rewarding and even reassuring for schools and universities, architects, and the construction team. Many benefits can result from these projects. This is not an argument against new construction, but an argument for the viability of many older structures. Redefined through careful planning and renovation, these buildings can have new life as successful centers of education and vibrant components of a city's texture.
The renovation and expansion of the Grace Church School in New York City's Greenwich Village shows the effectiveness of thorough planning. Housed in combined 18th-century row houses, the school has undergone a series of renovations over the years. In 1998, the school obtained an additional floor in an adjacent loft building.
Originally, the school intended to use the new space to relocate and consolidate some of its art programs, and add a gallery area and some general classrooms. However, after studying the overall building use with school officials, the architect noted a more fundamental problem: the lower school was split between two floors. With this vertical separation, the lower school lacked a clear identity, and the younger children frequently had to share stairs with older children.
Rather than diving directly into a build-out of the loft floor, the architect led the Grace Church School through a programming and evaluation process. The result was a more extensive renovation and reorganization than had been planned. The new design moved the lower school to the expansion space, and reorganized the existing spaces to place similar program elements and age groups together. The changes also solved much larger issues of school image, functionality and management not addressed in the initial plans.
Another similar project occurred at the Spence School, a private K-12 school in New York City. The original 1929 John Russell Pope design created a 10-story boarding school for girls. But by the mid-1980s, subsequent renovations and alterations had resulted in a facility that was no longer appropriate for the needs of a growing school. The key to readapting the facility was a comprehensive master plan that projected a series of improvements. Not all of these changes could happen immediately, but by stepping back and looking at the big picture of facilities use, the design was able to establish priorities for phased action.
This study resulted in the design and construction of a 24,000-square-foot, three-story addition to the main building. This new structure housed a regulation-size gym below-grade, a ground-floor cafeteria, new classroom space, and administration and faculty space. The structure for the addition was designed to accept two more floors in the future. After completing the addition, the school has pursued other components of the plan, which included the construction over two summers of a library/media center.