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Second Chances

Second Chances

“Nothing endures but change,” said the pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus.

That would make a fine motto for administrators, facilities staff, architects and planners of education institutions. Accommodating change in existing buildings on a college campus or in a school district is challenging, but manageable. The key to successful adaptive reuse is thoughtful and thorough decisionmaking.

Why consider recycling existing buildings? There are innumerable reasons, including limited institutional resources, the increasing cost of new construction, and a commitment to sustainable design principles. Before an education institution decides to add new space, the planning process should determine whether existing square footage is being used efficiently and effectively. At the heart of any planning effort are two critical questions:

  • How well do the existing buildings accommodate and support the functions they house?

  • What is that building's highest and best use for the institution?

Building factors

Determining whether a school or university is getting the most productivity from a facility is a matter of assessing a building's value in relation to a variety of issues.

  • Programmatic appropriateness: not all square feet are equal. Does an existing building have the capacity to accommodate the proposed program? It depends on what “accommodate” means. For instance, reusing an existing science building takes more than just making sure the square footage is adequate. A science building can be made up of a number of large lab spaces; perhaps the proposed reuse involves numerous small faculty offices and support space. This means that more circulation space would be needed to provide access to the series of smaller spaces.

  • Physical attributes: hidden advantages. What does the building's structure have to offer? When assessing the viability of an existing building, administrators should take into account many physical attributes: column spacing, hallway widths, the availability of long-span spaces, the live-load capacities of foundations and superstructures, the age and condition of major mechanical and electrical equipment, and the relative ease and cost of meeting fire codes.

    One project at Hamilton College, Clinton, N.Y., converted a chemistry building into a recreation and fitness center. The large, column-free spaces of the old laboratories became aerobics studios and multipurpose rooms, and a sloped chemistry lecture hall was turned into a dance studio with high ceilings.

  • Building character: the value of history. Is the building's design — its architectural character — meaningful? That may be an intangible, but it is important; and when the building in question is historically significant, the process of adaptive reuse must include discussions about reinforcing or changing the character. Can the existing building's style support interventions that represent a substantively different architectural language, or should renovations be consistent with the building's existing character?

  • Campus context: location and orientation. Where is the building, and how will a change in its use affect the coherence of the campus? Many urban institutions lack a conventional campus with quads, pathways and clear boundaries.

One example is the “campus” of the Laboratory Institute of Merchandising (LIM), which describes itself as “the college for the business of fashion.” It consists of four facilities in mid-Manhattan, near New York City's major retailing streets and a short walk from the international fashion market on Seventh Avenue. Because the neighborhood is, in effect, the campus, reinforcing the relationships among the college's facilities and between the college and the city's fashion and retailing hubs was the driving factor in identifying a new space for expansion. The college selected a building on Fifth Avenue and 45th Street, a location that fulfilled all its criteria: comfortably close to the existing facilities, and the retail and fashion centers; a fourth point in a rectangle created with other campus buildings, giving the figurative campus a literal shape; and establishment of a “campus” pedestrian route through retail and fashion venues.

Institutional factors

Issues related to strategic institutional goals and requirements:

  • Cultural significance: institutional meaning. Does what a building is for — its practical use — reflect what it stands for? For instance, like many education institutions, Hobart and William Smith Colleges, Geneva, N.Y., has a “signature” building: Coxe Hall, situated on the main quadrangle. The backdrop for commencement since the building opened in the early 1900s, it has served various functions of practical and symbolic importance — a primary classroom building in the earliest years, administrative home of the president and senior management today.

    In the new master plan, every scenario for the building's reuse had to be evaluated in the context of Coxe Hall's cultural significance — its meaning for the institution's past, present and future. In the end, rather than identifying an occupant group that would inevitably link the building to a particular academic department, the school made it the administrative home of the colleges' deans, and the existing theater in Coxe was reverted to a common room of the colleges, an important venue for students in the past. These functions place “ownership” of this campus icon in the hands of the students, making a powerful statement about the colleges' mission and values.

  • Strategic impact: “re-presenting” the past. What role should a building play in institutional identity?

    Gettysburg College's name is inseparable from the Civil War. Stevens Hall, built in 1865, was named for Thaddeus Stevens, not only a founder of the college in Gettysburg, Pa., but also a statesman whose legacy includes the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments to the Constitution. Moreover, Stevens Hall has landmark status and recently received federal funding from the Save America's Treasures program. It now serves as a student residence.

    The building soon will require comprehensive renovation and repair, and the college needs to reconsider its use and identify what might be most appropriate strategically. That has led school officials to consider using Stevens Hall as the future home of the college's history department, its Civil War Institute and an exhibition space for Civil War-era artifacts.

  • Financial impact: the inescapable bottom line. What will it cost? In the end, financial implications factor into every adaptive reuse project. Often, the most cost-effective solution also advances an institution's long-term strategy.

  • Fund-raising capacity: financing the bottom line. Can this building attract financial support? Education institutions recognize that it is never too early to consider how the strategic and practical goals of an adaptive reuse project might mesh with a donor's interests.

Taken together, these issues will help define the vision for a building's renovation and reuse: its program, its potential for creating new inter-relationships on the campus and its strategic contributions. Because decisionmaking involves a comprehensive list of factors, its success depends upon the participation of an equally broad group of stakeholders: future occupants, finance department representatives, facilities department personnel, and perhaps development and alumni affairs representatives.

Boyd, AIA , is a partner with Butler Rogers Baskett Architects, New York City.

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