Asumag 665 201207 Avoiding Preconceptions

Avoiding Preconceptions in School Construction

July 1, 2012
Tips for transforming schools by transcending existing facilities.

An existing facility that is being upgraded or retrofitted today typically is 30 to 45 years old, often with limited natural light, antiquated mechanical systems and retrofitted technology. All too often at the outset of a project, the broader project goals—and even those narrower in scope—seem daunting or altogether impossible when staring at a blueprint for a dark and dated building.

But what if a school could see past the physical restrictions of the walls to explore its transformation possibilities? There may be daylight at the end of a dark, enclosed hallway—it’s a matter of changing perception.

When a school or college begins to assess its facilities to determine what changes must be made to meet future needs and expectations, it is important to establish goals that are independent of the existing facility condition. Too often, an education institution considering a renovation or retrofit project will base its planning decisions on what it envisions could be accomplished reasonably and feasibly with its existing building footprint and layout. These assumptions greatly hinder the master plan and may be limiting in the long term.

Instead, schools must look at the big picture. Focus on the long-term goals and what the school wants to achieve as an education institution. Ask the big questions first: Should this building on campus be a gateway to the community? Should the building reinforce the school’s brand? Does the institution want a 21st-century learning environment? These are the types of broader goals that a school should seek at the outset of a project.

Next steps

Once a goal is established, it is appropriate to align the goal with existing conditions. How can a school close the gap between what it wants and what it has? It’s not that far of a stretch as one may think.

It begins by analyzing the costs and benefits of the goals and the building, starting with the broadest goal and working down. For example, if a primary goal is to create a large lecture room or community gathering space, then the structural system and existing column locations become critical factors.

A school may be faced with a decision to reduce the capacity of a proposed space, or look to modify the structural system to accommodate the desired program use.

There is no one correct answer. A cost-benefit analysis will consider all the critical factors: What is the utilization rate and scheduling of the proposed space? Does the use generate additional revenue for the institution through increased enrollment or community/business use? What is the cost of the structural alteration? How does that cost, coupled with the basic renovation costs of the facility, compare with ground-up construction of the same space, and what is the future cost, considering inflation, of that same space?

A good project team will ask the right questions and analyze the options thoroughly. The solution may not always be obvious.

As a school seeks to align its goals with the existing facility, it is important to avoid the preconceptions that may limit the project’s possibilities. Sometimes a dramatic transformation of an existing condition may not be as expensive or daunting as it first appears. Conversely, seemingly simple alterations can have more significant implications.

Two examples from the same project illustrate this point. A recent renovation of an existing building at Central Ohio Technical College in Mount Vernon involved converting a movie theater into classroom space though an infill of the theater space to create a second floor. Although this seemed daunting at first, the change yielded four additional classrooms at a premium cost of less than $100 per square foot, significantly less than new construction.

Conversely, the same building had covered outdoor space that appeared as if it could be enclosed easily to create additional building area on the first floor.

Aligning with exterior grades, replacement of floor slabs and creating a proper thermal envelope put this modification at nearly $200 per square foot, equal to the cost of new construction. Ultimately, both modifications were made, but only after the initial analysis enabled the college to make an informed decision.

Using technology

At this point in the planning process, it is important to leverage building information modeling (BIM). BIM technology enables a school to model existing conditions and experiment with what is feasible. BIM can be the tool that helps close the gap between what a school has and what it wants.

The decision to renovate or to build new often is based initially on a facility condition assessment that examines the envelope, building systems and general condition of the building. One possible outcome of this planning and investigation is to recognize that the existing facility may not be suitable for the proposed renovation or change of use. The planning team needs to be rigorous in its assessment and realistic about the challenges it faces.

Regardless of the outcome, a building model can be used to quickly illustrate a variety of potential scenarios. BIM will show if there is sufficient volume and ceiling space to accommodate not just program space, but also new HVAC systems that can navigate existing structural constraints. Predictive energy modeling can be a valuable tool to assess whether the building energy performance will be able to rival that of new construction without excessively long paybacks.

This initial investigation also may help schools properly evaluate the role sustainability plays. On a renovation or retrofit project, it is important to analyze the existing facility’s ability to meet its sustainability goals, not just energy performance criteria. Preserving and repurposing an existing facility has as much to do with sustainability as optimizing energy performance.

Even if a school is not pursuing LEED certification, existing facilities can help reinforce its unique character and community connectivity. All these factors can strengthen an institution’s brand and attract students.

Thinking outside the box

As a school focuses on the project and its goals, it is important to look at what makes a facility special and worth preserving, beyond cost. Elements that already exist may inspire unique design solutions that would not present themselves in new construction, particularly when looking at adaptive reuse.

It may be that the building’s location is a driving factor, or the existing landscape and vegetation are mature and worth preserving. Beyond location, identify any unique characteristics that can be highlighted, showcased and preserved. Some materials, such as copper or terrazzo, actually may improve in appearance as they age and can serve as a showpiece in the renovated space.

In the instance of Berea College’s Draper Hall in Berea, Ky., a unique characteristic presented itself in the form of a prominent vertical steeple. Initially, the steeple did not relate to the interior of the structure. However, during the renovation planning, cues were taken from this existing element to cut through each floor to create an interior rotunda. The finished rotunda space provides greater visual connectivity between floors and also allows for natural ventilation to occur between floors via a stack effect.

When considering a renovation or a retrofit, remember to avoid preconceptions. Whether people say "it’s too costly," "it can’t be done," "you can’t add a floor," or "you can’t enclose that space," don’t let preconceptions of what a building is inhibit what the building could be.

If schools can learn to see beyond what is physically standing there and think critically about the space and goals, they may find the opportunity to create something unique.

Sidebar: Case study: Ariel Hall at Central Ohio Technical College, Mount Vernon

The renovation of Ariel Hall on the Knox Campus at Central Ohio Technical College (COTC) is a testament to avoiding preconceptions in a renovation project. Before the project, Ariel Hall was an early-20th-century building not properly equipped to meet the needs of COTC’s expanding student population.

The school sought to create more usable space within the existing footprint, while updating the interior and exterior, and integrating technology and flexibility. Existing conditions such as a two-story movie theater and varying (and often low) ceiling heights were obstacles. The updated facility also needed to represent the modern and technical aspects of the COTC brand while respecting the traditional setting of the town and its surroundings. COTC was able to align its project goals with the structure’s existing conditions. Building information modeling (BIM) technology helped assess the cost and benefits of the design challenges and created a clear vision of what COTC hoped to achieve.

The existing functional space was reconfigured from 32,000 to 36,000 square feet. Ariel Hall now is a state-of-the-art structure boasting flexible classrooms that incorporate technology at the highest level. The building’s classrooms, laboratories and administrative offices use interactive whiteboards, video technology and modular furniture to accommodate a variety of learning and work settings.

The finished building enables teachers and students to connect, share and learn. Nearly 1,000 students and faculty began using the updated facility in January, and COTC is seeking LEED silver certification. The renovation of Ariel Hall is expected to serve COTC students far into the future.

Maletz, AIA, LEED AP, is vice president, architecture, and owner at SHP Leading Design, Columbus, Ohio. He is a member of the American Institute of Architects Political Action Committee and the Council of Educational Facility Planners International. The firm worked on the COTC and Berea College projects. He can be reached at [email protected].

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