May 1, 2002
Schools and universities are giving new life to old facilities, providing them with a second chance and, often, a fresh purpose.

Since it was designed in the 1950s, J.R. Pearson Hall had served its purpose well — housing thousands of students on the University of Kansas (KU) campus in Lawrence.

But by the 1990s, the seven-story facility had outlived its usefulness as student housing. The university didn't need as many residence-hall rooms as it did in earlier decades, and students who chose on-campus housing weren't so interested in the double-occupancy rooms and gang-style bathrooms found in Pearson. Still, the university wasn't ready to sentence the building to a date with the wrecking ball.

Instead, KU transformed the old residence hall into a new home for the School of Education. Supplementing the facility with a $6 million addition, the university was able to move the School of Education out of outdated space in a former chemistry department building, and take over a facility with 300 offices and 30 teaching spaces.

“You'd never know it had been a dorm unless you had lived there yourself,” says Warren Corman, university architect.

The dilemma KU faced is one confronted frequently by schools and universities as their facilities age and new needs develop. Housing patterns change, enrollments fluctuate, instructional strategies are modified, new technologies are created, lifestyles change. Educational institutions may find that the facility that was perfectly adequate a few years ago no longer serves the function for which it was designed.

Administrators and school designers who are willing to think creatively can give new life to facilities. A high school can become a middle or elementary school; an old elementary can be converted to administrative offices or an alternative education site; retrofits can turn a gymnasium into classrooms, or a residence hall into offices.

Schools and universities that find new uses for outmoded facilities can save on land and construction costs, and in many cases preserve buildings that have achieved historical status in a community.

Solving the puzzle

In a K-12 district, administrators have to evaluate the space needs of elementary-, middle- and high-school students as they determine whether to build, expand or renovate facilities. All along the way, they must be vigilant about spending construction funds wisely.

In Valley View District 365U in Romeoville, Ill., administrators looked at their demographic projections and the state of their current buildings in determining what facilities it would need to accommodate the growth in student population.

“The bottom line was we needed a new high school and a new middle school,” says Gregg Worrell, assistant superintendent of administrative services.

The district decided that a new high school would be built in Bolingbrook, Ill., to replace the current Bolingbrook High School, which could be expanded easily. The current high school would be converted to a middle school. Voters approved the plan in March as part of a $143 million bond issue. The facilities will be ready for students in 2004.

“Land costs are crazy here,” says Worrell about the district, which is 25 miles southwest of Chicago. “That's why we decided to have the old high school become a middle school.”

The old high school needs upgrades to transform it from an open-concept high school built in the 1970s to a facility that embraces 21st-century middle-school philosophy.

“There are a lot of poor circulation patterns that we're going to get rid of,” says Worrell. “We also will create a school-within-a-school concept. Each grade will have its own area.”

Like many districts, Valley View is putting its new construction money into a high school and passing on an older facility to middle schoolers. Just as a younger sibling often is the reluctant recipient of hand-me-down clothes and toys, middle-school students and parents might feel slighted because they are not getting a newly constructed facility. But Worrell says that has not been an issue among community members.

“All those middle schoolers are going to be high schoolers,” says Worrell. “If there has to be a choice, the parents would rather see the resources go to the high school. They'll spend three years in middle school, but they'll spend four years in high school.”

Another aspect of Valley View's facilities plan calls for conversion of the B.J. Ward Middle School to an elementary. To improve circulation, the library area will be converted to classrooms. Elementary students won't need a locker room, so that area will become the new media center. Industrial-arts classrooms will become kindergarten classrooms.

The most difficult part of converting the old Bolingbrook High School will occur in the summer of 2004.

“We can't really convert the building to a middle school until after the high-school kids are gone,” says Worrell. “All the renovation won't be done. The work will probably have to continue into the fall.”

Thinking creatively

Even if the demand for student housing hadn't declined at the University of Kansas in recent years, residence halls such as Pearson Hall would have been doomed for extinction. The layout and amenities could not satisfy the demands of the modern college student.

“Students want housing more like private apartments,” says Corman. “They don't want gang toilets.”

The university is converting some of its older-style residence halls into apartment-style living units, but officials decided on another use for Pearson. Unlike many of KU's larger residence halls, Pearson Hall was situated close enough to the heart of campus that it would be a convenient location for academic use.

“It wasn't conducive to being classrooms or laboratories,” says Corman. “But we saw that it would be good for offices.”

University planners thought Pearson would be an outstanding site for the School of Education, which needed upgraded facilities. Officials from the school weren't so sure.

“They fought it at first,” says Corman. “They didn't want to move into an old dorm.”

To help the building shed its look as a residence hall, the university designed a $6 million addition at what had been the rear of the building that houses classrooms and auditoriums.

The renovation and addition cost about $16 million, Corman says, about half what it would have cost to build a new facility of that size.

“We paid about $70 a square foot, instead of $140 or $150 a square foot,” says Corman.

Making room

On some campuses, schools convert facilities to new uses because they have no space to expand. Wheelock College, Boston, needed more room for classrooms, but its tightly packed urban campus left it with few options. Then school officials and designers cast their eye toward Wheelock's gymnasium.

“It was an undersized gym, and it was underutilized,” says Philip Laird, an associate principal with Architectural Resources Cambridge Inc., Cambridge, Mass. “It was not really being used to its potential. Students were using the athletic facilities at neighboring colleges.”

The school decided in 2000 to insert a floor in the gymnasium space and create a two-story area that housed 10 new medium-size classrooms as well as a larger high-tech interactive classroom.

“We knew the needs of the campus and the limitations of the campus,” says Laird. “This was a solution to a variety of problems.”

Installing a floor where none had been meant adding amenities that weren't needed before. “We had to figure out a way to put an elevator in,” says Laird.

Because students used the gym minimally, the school was able to go forward with construction without disrupting classes or displacing programs.

By adding classrooms in the former gymnasium space, Wheelock now had the flexibility to free up space in the main classroom building.

Kennedy, staff writer, can be reached at [email protected].

SIDEBAR: Middle-school make over

The solution seemed simple: School officials in Framingham, Mass., needed another middle school, and the district had a former middle-school building sitting unused.

But the school had been vacant since 1989. The building may have been acceptable as a middle school then, but it would not be suitable for a middle-level program in 2000. The facility had opened in 1972 as an open-concept school. The district wanted to create a middle school with self-contained houses for each of the school's three grades. School officials couldn't find any property in the town suitable to build a new middle school, so it pressed ahead with a major renovation of the old facility.

“We basically gutted it and rebuilt it,” says Judy Dallamora, executive assistant to the director of buildings and grounds in Framingham. “It had electric heat, which wasn't very cost-effective, and there were some air-quality problems.”

Much of the funding for the $14 million project came from a Massachusetts program established to improve racial balance in schools. In addition to academic houses for each grade level, the renovation created a community wing, which includes an auditorium, gymnasium and cafeteria. The heating system was upgraded, and windows were added to exterior walls.

SIDEBAR: Preserving history

The building in Oakland, Maine, started out in the 1930s as a high school. In the late 1960s, it became a junior high. Sometime next year it will begin a third life as an elementary school for grades 2 to 5.

The Messalonskee School Administrative District No. 47 in Oakland decided to convert Williams Junior High School to an elementary because, although officials believed the building could no longer function effectively as a school for middle-level students, the facility was in good condition and much-loved in the community.

“Generations of Oakland residents remember the building fondly,” says superintendent James Morse.

The district needed more space for both elementary- and middle-level grades. Funding wasn't available to build both a new elementary and middle school, so officials decided that building a new middle school for grades 6 to 8 and converting the junior high to an elementary made the most sense.

“The building was already over-enrolled,” says Morse. “It was inadequate for grades seven and eight, and it was woefully inadequate for grades six, seven and eight.”

Making the facility a junior high, together with placing sixth graders in the new middle school, will allow the district to get rid of portable classrooms at the other elementary schools.

The building underwent renovations in the late 1980s, and has been retrofitted to accommodate computer networking and Internet access.

“The changes we have to make to the building are fairly minor,” says Morse. “Mostly it's just moving some classroom walls.”

As a former junior high, the building will have more amenities than a lot of elementary schools. “It will have science labs, gymnasium and art rooms,” says Morse.

When the 2003-04 school year begins, the district will have enough classroom space to accommodate all of its students, and will be able to continue to use a building that has a special place in the memories of area residents.

About the Author

Mike Kennedy | Senior Editor

Mike Kennedy, senior editor, has written for AS&U on a wide range of educational issues since 1999.

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