Thoughtful Repositioning

Nov. 1, 2001
Creative design can reposition older buildings into campus stars.

There are two ways to handle an older campus building that has outlived its original use: move some partitions, add some new finishes, put up a new sign, and convince a reluctant department hoping for its own permanent facility to ‘temporarily’ move in. But a better solution is to reposition the building through a creative design that results in desirable space.

A growing trend on college campuses is to find ways to retain these worthy but outdated structures, when the original design intent no longer is applicable. Academic institutions realize that older buildings often have significant historical or sentimental value to alumni, faculty and students, that they provide visual and contextual continuity to the campus, and that they contribute to the unique look and feel of each campus.

To avoid being perceived as second-class, these buildings must be repositioned in a way that both reinvigorates the image and creates an effective environment for users. Changing a building's function, appearance and image can provide a new life to an important asset. A repositioned 20th-century building, integrated into an institution's 21st-century master plan, gives the institution another powerful tool for exhibiting its architectural assets.

Following are three case studies of structures that were rescued from second-class status to become highly desirable spaces through repositioning.

Residence hall to academic building

Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, Blacksburg, Va. — Shanks Hall. Shanks Hall was built in the early 20th century for the Corps of Cadets, for whom the university was created originally. Housing, dining and recreation for residents all were contained within the upper quad, the first formally planned part of the campus.

By the 1990s, due to shrinking cadet enrollment, the building no longer was needed to house the cadets. In addition, new high-quality housing was available on the other side of the 2,600-acre campus, offering an attractive alternative to the older facility. Because of these changes, the university decided to turn the building into an academic building. The building was redesigned to house the English and communication studies programs.

The repositioning of such a building goes far beyond trying to shoehorn the functions of an academic program into an existing plan. The designers set out to transform a residential building into an academic building, incorporating features and amenities appropriate to the new tenants. They had to consider many issues:

  • How an academic building differs from a residential building.

  • How the English and communication studies programs present themselves to the rest of the campus and to the outside world.

  • What kinds of spatial limitations the project imposes.

Several fundamental differences exist between residential and academic buildings. For instance, residential buildings, no matter how large, have modest entrances that are placed discreetly and built on a human scale. Residents and visitors typically enter a small space where they are screened before entering the more private areas of the building. Even social areas and recreation spaces are in the defensible area of the building, beyond the initial checkpoint.

Residential buildings also tend to be more modest in form and scale than academic buildings. Symbolism is kept to a minimum and, since these buildings are rarely endowed, names and other standout decorations usually are not prominent. Windows usually are punched openings to individual rooms, and there is no hierarchy of windows indicating a variety of functions. Additionally, residence halls have reduced floor-to-floor heights, partially because small rooms do not require high ceilings and partially to minimize construction costs.

In contrast, academic buildings feature clearly marked entrances with large and prominent doorways that encourage students, faculty and visitors to enter or pass through the building on the way to another destination. This space orients people to the entire building; vertical circulation is located in or adjacent to this space, and a directory is handy. Further, the scale and design of the spaces provides people with visual clues that they are in a public area.

Floor-to-floor heights are greater in academic buildings, since they contain classrooms with proportionally higher ceilings served by complex mechanical systems requiring more ceiling space. Large-capacity educational facilities also can include sloped floors and a variety of functional spaces, lounges, offices, classrooms, seminar rooms and support spaces that require a range of window sizes, types and styles. In addition, there is significantly more symbolism on the facades of these buildings, often named for a benefactor, identified with a specific field of study, or intended to provide visual clues to the importance of the group they house.

In converting Shanks Hall from a residence hall to an academic building, the architect worked directly with user groups, the office of the university architect and the office of capital outlay to change the function and image of the building, while retaining as much of the existing building fabric as possible. The following new program elements were required:

  • A new, more prominent entry that related to the central landscaped area in the upper quad.

  • An interior space that oriented and directed users to the functional spaces within the building.

  • A space for students to congregate outside of classrooms.

  • Larger spaces with higher ceilings to serve as high-tech classrooms.

The final design attaches two floors of large, double-height classrooms to the existing four-story building. Between the classroom wing and the inside corner of the L-shaped building, a skylighted atrium welcomes and orients students and visitors. The original residential rooms, retrofitted with new power, data, communications and mechanical systems, make perfect offices. All of these upgrades were made without disrupting the historic exterior of the building.

New life for a residential complex

Williams College, Williamstown, Mass. — Poker Flats. Occasionally, a building needs a new image while retaining the same basic function. Williams College's Poker Flats (formerly Stetson Road Apartments) were built in the late 1940s for returning veterans attending college on the G.I. Bill. The three, two-story brick buildings housed students in four garden-style flats per building. The buildings were plain and simply constructed to meet immediate needs, and were not designed to be particularly sympathetic to campus context. Over time, these small apartments were converted into faculty housing. Ultimately, they rarely were used because they were considered outmoded and undesirable.

The college wanted to reposition the buildings as new housing units. Working with student focus groups, the design team determined that there was a need for housing for students who desired a more independent lifestyle. These students were interested in housing with kitchen facilities, but the wornout garden apartments did not project the right image. Their utilitarian entrances faced away from the campus, as if they were turning their backs to the college. They also did not provide the single bedrooms or community space that students wanted.

Designers created two, two-story houses in each of the three buildings. Each unit houses six students. The first floor contains a living room, dining room, kitchen and two bedrooms; the upstairs includes four additional bedrooms. Each unit has recreational facilities in its basement. Large two-story porches identify the entrance to each building, create an outdoor living area and provide storage space. Most important, these porches face the college, rejuvenate the appearance of the apartment complex, and echo the architectural style of nearby campus buildings. Renamed Poker Flats Housing, the three buildings currently house senior co-op students. Once the least desirable housing on campus, it is now the most sought after.

New identity for an academic building

Mary Washington College, Fredericksburg, Va. — Combs Hall. Combs Hall at Mary Washington College began its life in the 1950s as a general science/lab building. The construction of a new lab building in the mid-1990s made Combs Hall less essential. However, with its proximity to the main campus entrance, it was an ideal location to house the consolidated English, modern foreign language and historic-preservation programs.

The college campus of the 1950s divided living, learning and socializing into separate physical entities. Today, spaces in academic buildings provide students the opportunity to interact with and get to know each other, study together, and have informal interaction with faculty and administration.

Combs Hall's original organization, with classrooms and offices located off a double-loaded corridor, could not provide these opportunities. To meet modern student requirements, the college asked the designer to create opportunities for this interaction within the building.

To promote interaction among students, a coffee bar was created. It serves as a student rendezvous place and can house poetry readings or receptions. This space also provides a valuable display area for the projects, and artifacts from the historic preservation and conservation programs.

To draw in the greater community, a 125-seat multimedia theater was created on the main level, adjacent to the building entry from a large formal quadrangle. Designed to serve as a lecture facility during class hours, it doubles as a public-outreach facility on evenings and weekends. It hosts movies, lectures and presentations that are open to the public.

The building's exterior also was made more welcoming. New steps and ramps improve access from the quadrangle, complying with the ADA. Additional trim and lighting increase the prominence of the entrances, heralding the new Combs Hall, redesigned for another 50 years of service.

During the 20th century, many campus buildings were cast aside or entirely removed once the facility's original function was no longer necessary. Not only did this result in many temporary departmental moves, but it created eyesores on campus. Over the past few years, however, there has been a rapid growth movement toward repositioning buildings. By strategically planning and collaborating with a design team, academic institutions can take advantage of changing times, allowing their campuses to be flexible, while retaining and fostering their own unique identities.

Buffington, AIA, and Baxter, AIA, are principals with Einhorn Yaffee Prescott, PC, Washington, D.C. The firm worked on the Virginia Polytechnic, Williams College and Mary Washington College projects.

Steps to take prior to repositioning a building

Look at the building in the context of the campus:

  • What is its location?
  • What is its relationship to other buildings?
  • What is its design style?
  • What symbolism does it convey?
  • What historical significance or special meaning does it embody?

Look at the existing building space:

  • How can it support other uses?
  • How can it support new pedagogy?
  • How can it work with different programs?

Look at existing building condition:

  • What is the envelope?
  • What are the building systems?
  • What is the structure?
  • How is the site configured?

Look at the building's flexibility:

  • What limits the use of the building for the next 50 to 100 years?
  • What is involved in the structural system or module?
  • What are the floor-to-floor heights?
  • What is the building's appearance?
  • What is its orientation?

Look at campus economics:

  • Is the building site more valuable for another use?

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