Found Space

Aug. 1, 2006
Creatively adapting and reusing old spaces can benefit communities and education institutions.

Swelling enrollments. Shrinking budgets. Deadlines, deadlines, deadlines. When education providers confront these obstacles to expansion, a multi-million-dollar new facility or major additions probably are not feasible.

Converting vacant and underused buildings into school facilities enables administrators to acquire additional space quickly and cheaply. And they even may help revitalize their communities.

Clay or jewel?

When an education institution purchases an older building to convert, the interiors will change significantly. But what about the exterior? Is it a hunk of clay to be molded into something completely different? Or is it a jewel that simply needs polishing? The answer depends on several factors: condition, contextual relationship to adjacent buildings, and the image the school or university wants to portray.

Many older buildings have a raw beauty, as well as a long history within their communities. People remember them. In many cases, they see the buildings as a piece of their childhood. For instance, the Waukegan North School annex in Waukegan, Ill., was built as a dairy in the 1920s. Many community residents have fond memories of the facility. (See “Milking an old dairy” sidebar, below.)

If a building has historical value to a community, educators and architects should resist the temptation to “inflict” a new design upon it and instead highlight found nuances. The functional benefit of this approach is a faster and cheaper project. However, “taking what you get” also provides a less obvious aesthetic benefit; when designers retain existing materials, shapes and colors, the building becomes a kind of jewel that celebrates its history. To radically transform the exterior of such a building would be to disregard its (and the community's) past.

However, respecting history does not mean an architect has to be timid in terms of freshening the existing “character” of the building. An old building doesn't have to appear old. A little color added to an exterior can enliven a building without rubbing out its historical value. Both budget and image need to be considered.

Return to the neighborhood

Converting non-educational facilities into schools also can help restore a sense of community that has been lost in many places during the last century.

The neighborhood concept surfaced in the late 1800s. Businesses, schools and residential facilities were knitted into the same area. This created self-sufficiency; residents had everything they needed within walking distance.

Then, communities split. Homes, retail facilities and schools became isolated. School districts consolidated smaller neighborhood schools into larger facilities that loomed on the outskirts of neighborhoods. Many communities no longer had a neighborhood school to develop around.

This created an aura of “deadness” during certain times of the day or on weekends. It diminished the sense of community on which neighborhoods of old thrived.

Educational adaptive reuse plays a key role in the movement known as “new urbanism,” which emphasizes a return to neighborhoods as originally conceived. It starts by eliminating underused or unsightly buildings. That makes communities (and school systems) more attractive to parents who are considering moving there.

Adaptive reuse boosts foot traffic and brings business to retailers near the school facility. Also, a school with adjacent retailers is convenient for parents of students.

When a school joins a mixed-use neighborhood, parents are more likely to get involved in school activities; other parents are not strangers, but neighbors.

Converting an underused facility within an urban core instead of building a new one on the outskirts of a community may enable a school district to avoid several problems. (See “The seeds are in the core” sidebar, above)

Finally, in a vibrant community, activity occurs all day and into the night. The residents and businesses of a community thrive off one another. Adding educational facilities to the mix benefits everyone. Day and night, schools help energize communities, bringing them closer to true neighborhoods.

Haug, AIA is principal in charge of design at Legat Architects, Inc. and a member of America's Schoolhouse Council. Ogurek is a member of the educational team at Legat Architects, Inc., Waukegan, Ill.

Milking an old dairy

The Waukegan boxing club in Waukegan, Ill., was built in the 1920s. Over the years, the facility has received a variety of upgrades and additions to adapt to several uses, including a dairy, creamery, grocery store and boxing club.

Waukegan School District 60 owned the abandoned boxing club, which was situated next to Waukegan North Elementary School. The building's windows were boarded. Asbestos clung to 90 percent of its pipes. Cancer-causing fibers swarmed in its ceiling panels. Dents covered its lockers. And the drywall looked as if several boxers had gone a couple of rounds with it. The area in which the facility was situated also had lost some of its neighborhood appeal.

The district decided to convert the facility to an annex for some of its students. Asbestos was removed, and the interior was gutted and renovated. The facility now houses six classrooms, one office and bathrooms. Other than new, larger windows, the exterior of the annex changed little. This helped achieve the district's schedule and budgetary goals. It also celebrates the facility's architectural history; different bricks, unmatched grout and other patchwork now reveal snippets of the building's more-than-80-year history.

Since the annex was completed in August 2005, foot traffic has increased. This brings the area closer to a traditional neighborhood and brings more customers to an adjacent small grocery store.

Design and construction of the $669,000 project took four months.

The seeds are in the core

Some school districts with rapidly growing enrollments build new schools in “growth rings” on the outskirts of their communities. This could lead to a variety of problems: an inability to afford repairs and upgrades at other schools, increased transportation expenses, and ultimately, economic and cultural segregation within the district.

Converting underused facilities within urban cores gives districts more money to spend on other schools, decreases transportation costs, and promotes diversity among the student body. Best of all, it furthers the sense of community among children, and by association, their parents.

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