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The Art of Renovating Science Facilities

Colleges and universities can avoid renovation pitfalls by realistically evaluating their buildings.

Yesterday's science classrooms and laboratories do not serve the changing needs of today's science programs, and colleges and universities are searching for ways to revitalize these aging facilities.

But this is no easy task. Schools need science facilities with more space for mechanical and electrical systems, and ductwork and piping. Labs need greater power requirements and additional features to provide more safety and protect the environment.

Renovating a 30-year-old science building may be one of the most complex construction tasks faced by university planners. To be successful, planners must focus early, clearly and firmly on fundamental planning steps.

Evolving needs Science facilities built during the 1960s and 1970s devoted about 11 percent of their gross space to mechanical and electrical systems. Yet, today's demands for increased power and ventilation easily can consume 18 percent or more of a science building's gross space.

Old science buildings generally were built with structural live load capabilities of 80 to 100 pounds per square foot. Today's facilities demand a minimum of 100 pounds per square foot.

Floor-to-floor height requirements, primarily driven by increased ductwork and piping above the ceiling, have grown, too - from 12 feet in the 1960s to 16 feet or more today.

In the past, lab wastes flowed into a common waste system. Today, separate waste facilities are necessary.

Power requirements to handle the increased electrical and electronic equipment used in the laboratories have skyrocketed. Twenty years ago, 19 watts per net square foot proved sufficient. Today, buildings must have wattages of at least 27.7 watts per net square foot. Older buildings did fine with zoned electrical paneling. Today, safety concerns dictate the use of dedicated electrical panels for individual labs.

These and other considerations pose challenges for university planners looking to renovate a science facility. Here are some tips and tricks that may help a renovation succeed.

Building a team As a first step in any renovation, a school should assemble a team of university decisionmakers and outside professionals. It should include personnel from the facilities department, the academic department, maintenance and administration. The outside professionals should include architects, engineers and perhaps laboratory planning consultants.

In selecting those outside the university, consider referrals from peer institutions. Whom have other universities used? How have these consultants performed, especially in terms of balancing competing concerns? Consultants, for example, often empathize with the ultimate customer, the academic department, while failing to address the full range of needs expressed by the person holding the contract - the facilities director.

Remember, too, that the planning team will work together for a long time - years perhaps. When putting the group together, consider personal compatibility.

Space to grow The team's first task will involve determining the gross space requirements of the renovation. This is more than simply applying formulas for calculating classroom and laboratory space.

Consider the building's function. Will it house computer science, biological sciences, chemistry, physics or something else?

What image does the institution wish to project? What are the time constraints? Must the building open next semester? Can it wait a year?

Then comes a preliminary analysis of the gross space of the existing facility and the programming needs for the renovation in terms of numbers of classrooms, offices, laboratories and supporting building systems.

The price of fixing Next, the team should develop a preliminary cost model. Two estimates can rationalize the process. The university should commission an independent estimator. The project consultant should develop the second estimate.

When the estimates come back, look for differences. Investigate why certain costs in one estimate are higher or lower than in the other. Reconcile the differences and use the reconciled numbers to move forward.

Another financial issue requiring early resolution is the difference between the cost of renovating and the cost of building a new facility.

Despite the historical value of any building to the university, renovating science buildings carries extremely high costs. Planners may be able to justify a renovation that carries a 20 percent premium over a new facility, but an 80 percent premium may be unrealistic. In such a case, it may make more sense to build a new facility and to renovate the historical building to serve another purpose.

Making it fit The next stage of planning compares the existing building configuration with anticipated needs. Who will use what space in the building? What are their space needs? The square footages needed for people and support systems will be different for a chemistry lab than it is for a computer lab. What are the gross-square-footage needs for each lab in the renovation? How many classrooms must the building provide? What office space requirements arise from the lab and classroom plans? How do these requirements affect adjacencies and circulation throughout the space?

Consider the possibility that existing facilities have cramped the current academic program. Many university planners renovate space with the idea that current space requirements will grow steadily over the years. But they may fail to realize that current space allocations are already insufficient. Factor in a department's need to "decompress" before developing estimates about the department's growth.

All systems go Next, analyze the building systems. Rate the envelope or shell of the building, the structural strength of the walls and floors, the mechanical and electrical requirements; the communications systems; site access; parking, and utility service. Which specifications governed the original building design in each of these areas? How must those specifications change to accommodate a department's technical evolution?

Evaluate the effect of building code changes since the facility was built. Chances are that the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) as well as local, state and federal regulatory agencies have significantly altered the codes that apply to the building. How will those changes affect the renovation? Look at your two estimates and reconcile them.

After completing these preliminary steps, re-examine the decision to renovate. Do this before spending time or money on detailed programming and design. If your re-evaluation is positive, you can move beyond the planning and design stages.

While renovating yesterday's science classrooms is no easy task, employing real-world strategies and avoiding typical renovation traps can help educators and administrators succeed.

Well-conceived preliminary planning will produce one of three results. It may reveal that a project is not feasible. Or it may affirm the original concept and allow design to get underway. Or a plan may indicate that a concept almost works, except for one or two apparently intractable problems: Maybe there's not quite enough space, or the schedule is just too tight.

Designers often can suggest tricks to solve these and other problems.

For example, portable solutions may overcome minor space limitations for, say, certain test equipment.

Mobile casework or furnishings can solve small problems related to minor shortages of storage space.

Less expensive building materials, which can be delivered on shorter schedules and installed more quickly, often can help satisfy tight construction schedules. The savings on materials also can help defray overtime costs.

Science building renovations can stumble over a number of issues. In particular, beware of the following seven traps.

- Insufficient space. Be realistic about how much space you have, and be prepared to reduce your space needs. An over-optimistic building-efficiency factor (your net-to-gross-space ratio) can lead you astray in a building that was not originally designed for laboratories.

- Underestimating. On the surface, renovating a science building is expensive. Beneath the surface, the potential for budget-busting surprises is enormous. The square footage devoted to an existing building's mechanical systems may appear acceptable at the start of the project. As walls and ceilings come down, however, it is not unusual to discover constraints that will limit the space available to mechanical systems or other building systems.

- Inadequate floor-to-floor heights and structural loading specifications. Don't fudge in these areas during preliminary planning. Floor-to-floor height requirements have grown by two to three feet since the 1950s. Loading requirements also are higher. Failing to consider how these issues affect a renovation can raise costs geometrically during construction.

- Poor vehicular access. Modern science facilities, especially those conducting major research, require easy access for the delivery of supplies such as chemicals, gas cylinders and raw materials. In addition, modern environmental concerns have dramatically increased the amount of space required for hazardous-waste disposal, both inside a building and on the loading dock. Buildings constructed 30 years ago characteristically feature small loading docks on the side of the facility with limited vehicular access. Don't forget to factor in the cost of logistical upgrades.

- Zoning. Make sure that a planned renovation matches the zoning requirements laid down for the area. You don't want to be converting an old teaching lab into a biomedical research lab only to discover that zoning restrictions prohibit biological research.

- Utility capacities. A renovation may require more capacity from existing utilities. During planning, be sure to verify the capacity of the utilities available to the building. Will those capacities match the renovation's needs? If not, how much will it cost to upgrade these capacities?

- Procrastination. Taking too long to make decisions can delay construction work, lead to missed deadlines, and leave students and faculty without facilities. Delayed decisions usually stem from a lack of information required to make the decision. Solid planning can overcome this trap.

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