Paul Erickson

Can this building be a school?

April 13, 2023
Existing manufacturing and warehouse facilities or office buildings can help schools meet their facility needs.

Have you ever considered fitting your educational program into an existing non-school building?

Certain programs may lend themselves to being “off campus.” The Minnetonka (Minn.) district needed a home for a new program focused on entrepreneurship and mentorships with private businesses. The perfect locale was an existing office building. Students apply course content in real-world settings, work in teams through project-based assignments, and connect with professionals in design, marketing, global business, health sciences, multimedia communications, and public policy.

Timing can be important in addressing a space need (e.g., enrollment spike, grade reconfigurations, special programs). A district with a sudden enrollment spike and not enough time to build new may be able to acquire and remodel an existing non-school building—problem solved.

Location may determine whether it’s feasible to acquire an existing space. One private preK-12 school experienced a 50% enrollment increase, but its facility was at capacity with no space to expand. To build a new campus with adequate acreage would mean moving away from its enrollment feeder areas. The better option was to buy a neighboring manufacturing facility and renovate it for the preK-5 program so that all students could remain on one campus.

Costs can be unpredictable when building new versus renovating. The Anoka-Hennepin (Minn.) district needed to house a high-level special education program. Without time to build new, it acquired a vacant communications utility facility. The building envelope and site were functional, and interior spaces and mechanical systems required renovations. The cost of buying and remodeling the building was equal to a new building, but choosing the existing building saved six months of construction.

Is acquisition viable?

How do you determine the viability of pursuing an existing facility?

  • Determine the program and space needs for interior and exterior learning areas, core/support spaces and land acreage
  • Identify potential properties using the expertise of architects or engineers to assess properties
  • Consider the full costs beyond purchase price, such as hazardous materials remediation, demolition, exterior envelope repairs, and HVAC and sprinkler systems.
  • Factor in timelines for acquisition, including design meetings, preparing documents, bidding, demolition and construction, and move-in. 

Renovation challenges

The facilities commonly considered for an education repurpose are manufacturing or warehouse facilities, mall/department stores, and office buildings. Each has advantages and disadvantages.

Manufacturing and warehouse facilities and mall spaces typically have unobstructed open-space and high-bay ceiling structure that that can be fashioned into effective learning environments. Building layout usually consists of one or two levels and is square-shaped. Internal areas may lack daylight, so new windows or skylights may be needed.

Existing rooftop mechanical air handling equipment is frequently undersized or outdated and may need to be replaced. Schools typically have more stringent HVAC requirements for addressing zone controls, fresh-air capacities, and energy efficiency. Electrical systems are usually adequate. Depending on building age, a vapor barrier may be missing under concrete floors, causing slabs to ‘sweat’ from below-grade capillary action – topical moisture barrier applications can be applied to the slab as a remedial solution.

Office buildings typically have private spaces that can be used for administrative and small group functions, but interior demolition may be needed to create large learning spaces. The building layout is typically multilevel and rectangular; interior spaces are near exterior walls with windows for natural light. Depending on building age, renovations to mechanical HVAC ductwork may be required. Central HVAC systems tend to be interior or rooftop units and may be adequate for air distribution capacity. Electrical systems may require upgrades to accommodate load requirements.

Erickson, AIA/NCARB/REFP, executive officer and partner, is past president of ATSR Planners/Architects/Engineers. He has 45 years of experience in school planning, design, and construction. Erickson can be reached at [email protected].

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