Asumag 672 Facility Decision 200907

The Long Haul

July 1, 2009
The decision to repair or replace a facility doesn't happen overnight; it requires long-range planning.

Are you facing the decision to add on and modernize, or build new? You are not alone; most education institutions have faced this decision, as well as whether to demolish, abandon or sell a facility.

As education programs change, older structures become less adaptable to support the curriculum. Older buildings typically are void of large- and small-group learning spaces, flexible teaming areas, planning areas for staff, adequately sized classrooms and proper spaces for administration. Major physical hindrances can impede student learning and staff development.

But don't base the decision on this criterion alone. Some older facilities are characterized by higher test scores, more parental involvement and greater community pride. But when parents, staff, students and community members express frustrations about a facility, and students leave for newer schools in neighboring districts, it may be time to consider new construction. Excessive repair needs, high energy consumption and operating costs, thermal discomfort and the inability to physically support the education program are evidence that a building no longer provides a good environment for learning.

Start with a long-range plan

How does an institution begin deciding whether to renovate or build new? Look at the “big picture” and develop a campus- or districtwide master plan. Begin in-house discussions with administrators, staff, school board, parents and community groups. A facilities-planning specialist can evaluate building conditions and educational adequacy, and conduct dialogue with stakeholders. Form a facilities task force of parents, administrators, teachers, students, agencies, community members and business leaders to craft a facilities master plan.

A long-range master plan includes assessments of deferred maintenance, educational adequacy, life-cycle comparisons, construction costs (short- and long-term), parity and equity, mandates and code compliance. The assessments take into account the institution's teaching mission and educational philosophy. Master planning helps to measure a building's useful life, identify needed improvements and map out its future as it relates to enrollment demographics and educational adequacy. The process for decisionmaking is more all-encompassing than setting a “percentage threshold” comparison to replacement cost.

A master plan becomes an effective tool in determining whether to add on and modernize, or to build new. Look at the following areas to help arrive at a decision:

  • Factors to consider

    Goals and objectives. Confirm vision/goals/philosophy outcomes, technology needs, flexibility/expansion expectations, district identity and the community interaction process.

  • Facilities assessment. Evaluate building deterioration, deferred maintenance, capital-renewal issues, mandated health and safety upgrades, facility obsolescence, physical-plant condition, site, structure, envelope, mechanical, electrical, codes and accessibility.

  • Educational-adequacy assessment. Determine quality of space, function, expansion needs, aesthetics, safety and security, site size and circulation, square footage, grade-level configuration, instructional aids, program support, flexibility, capacity, space utilization, core facilities, seating efficiency, state education mandates and re-purposing opportunities.

  • Operational assessment. Develop and assess project costs, life-cycle costs, replacement analysis, energy efficiency, administrative and transportation efficiencies, demographics and maintenance measures.

  • Community assessment. Investigate historical significance, political aspects, new and existing site analyses, board preference, effect on property values and community opinion.

  • Environmental assessment. Compare the sustainability impact of maintaining an existing facility with new construction.

  • Implementation assessment. Determine the effect of maintaining school operations during construction, phasing and sequencing considerations, time, and the effect that different building solutions will have on learning.

Addressing all planning components provides a thorough process for making decisions. When evaluating whether to modernize or build new, education institutions should rank their priorities and consider how each option will:

  • Enhance student learning.

  • Realize short- and long-term cost savings.

  • Save construction time.

  • Avoid disruption of curriculum and learning.

  • Affect the process of purchasing a new site.

  • Extend the building's useful life.

  • Best manage project scope and budget through phasing opportunities.

  • Minimize any breach of safety and security if construction takes place while school is in session.

  • Enhance the area's historical character.

  • Provide higher-quality finishes for long-term value.

  • Address neighborhood values.

  • Achieve sustainability credits with products, systems and less construction waste.

  • Maximize operational costs based on student capacity.

  • Enhance program function with fewer building constraints.

  • Define cost certainty with fewer unforeseen conditions.

  • Manage design and construction fees because of risk and other issues.

  • Provide positive design solutions with fewer building constraints.

  • Maximize energy-efficient construction.

  • Address educational state guidelines standards.

  • Address safety and security more effectively in design.

  • Maximize funds for instructional technology and infrastructure routing.

Whether building new or adding on and modernizing, it is essential to properly maintain school facilities. Education institutions must keep facilities in excellent operating condition. A school that is well-maintained extends its useful life, reflects the institution's leadership, enhances student achievement, instills community pride and protects long-term viability.

Revitalizing the neighborhood

After analyzing districtwide needs, Robbinsdale (Minn.) Public Schools decided to demolish Forest Elementary School in Crystal, Minn., and build a new facility over the existing building footprint. No land was available for a new site; the existing site was in an established neighborhood, adjacent to a community park.

Because of the presence of asbestos and mold, and the need for major repairs, the district concluded it would be more cost-effective to demolish the school and build a new facility. That decision prompted the city to provide funds for a larger gym and invest in upgrading the adjacent park.

With the new building, instructional space now supported the educational program, energy-efficiency and sustainable-design strategies were used, and community pride increased. Students were relocated to an nearby school for one year until construction was complete.

The decision to build a new school was made after considering all the long-range planning factors. Success builds on success; the district is seeking more new school “replacements” with the help of federal stimulus low-interest bond funding opportunities.

Erickson, AIA/NCARB/REFP, is president of ATS&R Architects/Engineers/Planners, Minneapolis, a firm specializing in school facilities planning, design and construction. He can be reached at [email protected].


Percentage of school districts completing some form of construction project in 2008.

Percentage of colleges and universities completing some form of construction project in 2008.

Source: AS&U's 35th Annual Official Education Construction Report, May 2009

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