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Lasting Value

Lasting Value

Retrofitting historic school buildings can provide benefits beyond the bottom line.

More than 10 years ago, the U.S. Department of Education estimated that the average age of American school facilities was 40 years. With the slowing education construction market, we can assume that this age is continuing to rise. And this system of aging school facilities begs the question: Renovate or replace?

When schools are looking at their shrinking resources and ever-growing list of demands, smart financial planning and high-value capital investments are of primary importance. For any given facility, three options are available for school decisionmakers:


•New construction.

•Selective demolition and renovation.

These options provide the basis for organizing a facility analysis. It is important to keep in mind that the best solution takes into account an education institution’s long-term goals, objectives and condition of existing facilities.

For the long term

More and more, institutions are considering long-term benefits over the first-time cost. Historically, education institutions have focused on the construction costs and may not have used due diligence to examine the highest return on investment over an extended period of time (10 to 20 years). When deciding whether to renovate or replace, schools should evaluate the long-term benefits of reusing all or portions of existing facilities.

Determining the long-term return on investment comes from a comprehensive consideration of construction and total project costs. The primary financial gains of reuse are attributed to avoiding the cost of acquiring new land, demolishing existing facilities, building new infrastructure and purchasing new construction materials. Renovating historic facilities to accommodate 21st-century academic and extracurricular programs may cost more in planning services, but the long-term savings of reuse often outweigh the initial costs.

Communities that choose to renovate existing structures find that the benefits extend beyond savings. Not always quantifiable, these benefits are manifested in improved public health, lower property taxes, saved gas and a strengthened community. Architects, urban planners, community members, preservationists and political leaders often promote the advantages of creative reuse and renovation of education facilities, especially in regions marked by historic architectural character. The rewards are varied:

•An opportunity to upgrade and streamline existing building systems to modern standards.

•Opportunities to minimize programmatic disruption through phased development, leading to quicker occupancy and decreased impact on productivity.

Increased sustainability by minimizing ecological disruption via site retention and energy savings. Avoiding complete demolition, minimizing new construction, and capturing the embodied energy of existing building materials and assemblies may lead to significant gains in energy.

A revitalized community spirit. Older school buildings are more likely to be embedded in neighborhoods. Reinvesting in these older building often increases the walkability of an area, provides a space for community gathering/shared use, and unites generations over a shared educational legacy.

•An opportunity to be architecturally and programmatically creative, to breathe new aesthetic and functional life into a historically relevant space.

Sidebar: A Tale of Reuse

Lake Forest High School (LFHS), Lake Forest, Ill., is in a residential neighborhood adjacent to Lake Michigan. It serves nearly 1,800 students in grades 9 to12 in Lake Forest District 115.

Constructed in 1935 as a WPA project, it was pieced together through three distinct building programs in 1958, 1966 and 1992. The culmination of the building footprint after 1992 left LFHS with an uneven distribution of technology, building system vintages, educational appropriateness and Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) non-compliance.

A comprehensive study of the facility determined a long-range plan for the campus. The result preserves, modernizes and streamlines the LFHS campus for the demographic and educational needs of today and tomorrow—and imparts a few important lessons in creative reuse.

With historic education facilities, a common complaint is the disconnect between the structure of yesterday and demographic and educational needs of today. Spaces are repurposed over time to fit modern programs. LFHS had two interesting evolutions over the past 75 years.

The original 1935 gymnasium was transformed into the cafeteria in 1992. In 2008, the long-range facility plan concluded that the cafeteria space would be optimized by adaptively reutilizing it as a library. Because it originally was an athletic space, the library’s high ceilings, spacious layout and mezzanine provide an open, collegiate feel for students. To honor the history of the building and community, a student-created mural of the school’s history extends along the base of the northern wall with original windows that overlook the interior student commons. Portions of the original gym wood floor also were restored to connect the media center with its storied past.

The second transformation converted original classroom space into a library and subsequently into a teacher/student office assistance center. The teaching/student center is a space for professional collaboration and interactive curricular development. This is a program element noticeably absent in older education buildings designed to support more traditional, isolated teaching methods. Overall, adaptive reuse has enabled the preservation of the building footprint while evolving to meet current education demands.

One of the most valuable realizations in the case of LFHS was the creative capture of unused space between the North and South buildings. An unused wedge-like area was transformed into a student commons. With skylights and a glass facade, this daylighted atrium now is a sunny place for students to mingle and for community events. It also links the media center and cafeteria.

Finally, the master-planning process led to infrastructure upgrades that increase accessibility and sustainability. The most important step toward sustainability was the thoughtful examination and anticipation of building and community needs.

Other sustainable features:

•Green roofs to capture rainwater, which limits the site’s impact on the municipal sewer system and provides insulation and increased green space.

•A permeable paver parking lot to capture rainwater and reduce runoff.

•A bioswale for stormwater detention and filtration.

•Occupancy sensors, high-efficiency systems and daylighting.

•Highly reflective roofing to limit the urban heat-island effect and reduce solar heat gain.

•Open additions and ADA retrofitting, along with a more thoughtful site plan for building services, improved accessibility significantly.

•Use of materials with low or no volatile organic compounds (VOCs).

Jolicoeur, AIA, LEED AP, is a principal and K-12 market sector leader at Perkins+Will, Chicago. Kahl is the national K-12 education research knowledge coordinator at Perkins+Will. The firm was architect for the Lake Forest High School project. [email protected] and [email protected]

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