Paul Erickson

Reopening a ‘Mothballed’ School

Feb. 1, 2021
When reopening a facility, consider recurring costs for items such as utilities, custodial supplies and personnel, staff, and transportation

A school district decides to “mothball” rather than close a school to keep it in reserve for future use. What precipitates this? It usually because of reduced enrollment in the attendance area or because a district’s finances forces budget cuts.

Other reasons? Maybe daily education stops in a building, but it remains open for community use, or the building’s historic designation prohibits demolition.

Although a district may not need to continue operating the school, retaining the property may be prudent. If a school is mothballed, it is essential to have a thorough maintenance and monitoring plan to prevent possible mold growth, water infiltration, and deterioration. Security—boarding up windows, installing fencing and cameras, and providing scheduled maintenance—can deter vandalism.

Failing to maintain a school while it is mothballed is a recipe for disaster; dealing later with vandalism and deferred maintenance can be expensive. If a building sits vacant without heating and humidity control, deterioration quickly sets in, causing freezing pipes, mold growth and materials failure.

Why “un-mothball” a building? The school may be needed to handle rebounding enrollment in the area. Or a school district may need additional space for new programs or to accommodate districtwide enrollment growth. Right now, districts dealing with Covid-19 protocols may want to tap unused classroom space to provide the required social distancing.

When reopening a facility, consider recurring costs for items such as utilities, custodial supplies and personnel, staff, and transportation. Consider nonrecurring costs for technology, facility upgrades, major cleaning, purchasing library books, moving, and furniture. Facility upgrades costs might include painting, refinishing gym floors, rekeying, new playground equipment, signage, plumbing repairs, sidewalk replacement, HVAC and electrical upgrades, window replacements, and code upgrades for seismic requirements. Also, retrofitting for a different student age group may bring on renovation costs.

As a first step in assessing whether a building can be reopened, confirm through energy management logs (if available) that temperatures were maintained while mothballed. Determine if there has been water infiltration, meet with local officials for reopening requirements, and determine if any updates are needed to meet codes.

Mechanical systems will need retro-commissioning, duct cleaning, controls updating, one-time maintenance service (including parts replacement) on all equipment, flushing of plumbing systems for proper operation, and plumbing fixtures replacement as needed.

Check electrical systems for safe operation; update fire alarm systems, test elevator controls, replace burned-out lamps or entire fixtures, and clean light fixture housings. Update sound systems, make sure security systems provide the desired coverage of the facility, and confirm that access-control systems working properly.

Perform a full inspection of the building envelope for weathertightness and needed maintenance on walls, entrances, windows, roofing and flashing. Remedy water infiltration issues at subgrade levels and provide repairs or replacement of all expired exterior building systems. Thoroughly clean the building interior and provide updates for handicapped accessibility.

Inspect the site for deteriorated sidewalks, parking lots, fencing, playground equipment, and lighting. Confirm that exterior utilities serving the property are code compliant and working properly.

When reopening a mothballed school, always plan ahead and budget for contingencies. Reopening a 1960s 70,000-square-foot school that has been mothballed for several years may cost between $30 to $50 per square foot. Make sure to hire an architect or engineer to help navigate the project.

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