If you’ve ever tried to do a technology installation in a school that was state-of-the-art back in 1952, you know the quandary. The building may have great bones, but negotiating the skeleton to run the necessary wiring may be difficult, bordering on impossible.

Then there are other scenarios — like the next student you have to seat in an already overcrowded classroom may have to be suspended from the fluorescent light fixtures. What can you do? There’s just so much floor space and you’ve reached the maximum capacity available.

Of course, it goes with the territory that when money is in short supply, the first thing sacrificed is building maintenance. Toilets don’t flush, windows no longer open, and the walls have so many holes in them, they resemble Swiss cheese.

So you’re left with the infernal dilemma –— do you renovate, remodel and/or build onto the existing structure; or do you tear down the building and rebuild, or do you relocate the school altogether? There are numerous issues for consideration and some of them even involve real estate.

Options and Perceptions

The factors for making this either-or decision vary widely by district. Generally, district powers-that-be have to look at the age of the facility; whether the location serves the district’s changing demographics; whether the location is landlocked; and, quite naturally, the associated costs, says Rolland Reid II, principal and senior vice president of RIM Architects, Alaska .

Looming large is the“public relations component,” which Adolfo Cotilla, president of Florida-based ACAI Associates Inc. , says can have as much of an impact on the decision to renovate or rebuild as any structural factors. In many cases, it’s essentially a matter of perception.

Reid explains that a new building looks pretty, smells good and has a“cutting edge” appearance, making it appealing to the public. “Facilities should be a reflection of the (district’s educational) program,” he says.

Starting from scratch is in line with some generally held beliefs. “If you put up the right building, it can influence learning. If you give teachers a better school, they’ll do a better job,” Reid says.

Conversely, a push for renovation can be fueled by loyalty to a building and the economy of reuse, Cotilla says. It also can promote the perception of fiscal responsibility.

According to James Alexander, a principal of Boston-based Finegold Alexander & Associates Inc. , there tends to be a prejudice against renewing older school buildings. Public perception in these cases is that a renovated school building won’t last as long as one that was newly constructed and that it won’t have the latest safety features.

Massachusetts was among a number of states that subscribed to the formula that dictated, if repair, remodeling and restoration of an older building would exceed approximately two-thirds of the cost of new construction, then new construction is mandated. Florida, Cotilla remarks, set less than 50 percent as its threshold.

According to Alexander, who strongly advocates saving older buildings, Massachusetts finally abandoned this law because it discovered that too many old buildings were being wasted. Other states also have begun to rethink these mandates and are using more subjective aesthetic criteria, rather than just letting the numbers determine the outcome.

In the end, each school building requires individual consideration in determining whether it receives renovation or the wrecking ball.

Decisions, Decisions

Whether to keep the old school or not is the question. One of the factors to be examined is the reason to keep the building. Does it have historical significance? Is it an architectural masterpiece? Does the community have a sentimental attachment to the school? “If the reason isn’t there… it’s easier to take the approach of what the cost is to maintain it in the first place,” Cotilla says.

If you’re dealing with a building that has architectural character or unique features, such as a large formal auditorium, and there is quality to the building envelope, then renovation may be an option, Alexander says. He adds that another consideration is whether or not the interior structure and general layout are flexible enough to allow for renovation.

It costs less to renovate and reuse an existing building, with its already-installed utilities and services, Alexander explains. Additions to an older building can make it feasible to reuse.

Cotilla says that the advent of cutting-edge technology has had mostly a positive effect on classroom space requirements, enabling the use of smaller spaces, which, in turn, makes them easier to remodel.

A condition survey and life-cycle cost analysis must be done “because maintenance curves tend to rise with the age of the school,” Reid says. “It will answer the question, ‘What is it going to cost in the life of the building?’”

The state of Florida, Cotilla says, uses what is known as the Castaldi Formula for determining if a school should be redone to meet current needs or replaced with new construction. In Florida, the terms used to define “renovation” are: rehabilitation, or restoring the building to the same condition it was in when first built; remodeling, which involves any changes to the size and shape of any space within the building; and, modernization, where the structure receives substantive work to bring it up-to-date and up to current codes.

According to this formula, the total cost of educational improvements, the total cost of improvements in the healthfulness of the building, and the total cost of safety improvements, factored by the estimated index of educational adequacy and the estimated life expectancy of the modernized school, must be less than the replacement cost of buildings being considered for modernization, factored by the estimated life of a new school building.

Reid also advocates the recovery and conversion of alternative-use buildings. He cited the case of a cash-strapped charter school in the Anchorage school district that desperately needed a building. The result of “thinking outside the box,” Reid says, was the conversion of an old Safeway grocery store in an old strip mall into a 43,000-sq.-ft. school that was completed at a cost of less than $60 per sq. ft. Alexander advocates “comprehensive renovation. You just can’t go in and paint and (wall) paper.”

When there are too many obstacles to make renovation practical, such as inadequate space and nowhere to expand; older hazardous construction materials that are too difficult to remove or contain; the inability to reconfigure the interior space; a building too run-down to reclaim; environmental issues with the site itself; or a building that is no longer located in an area suitable to meet the needs of the district, then new construction may be the only option.

Geographic conditions can have a major impact on building design, as well. Reid says that they routinely have to plan buildings to handle changing seismic conditions, while Cotilla primarily deals with designing buildings to withstand hurricanes. Reid also says they have to plan for high winds, darkness and snow safety issues, proximity of the community to the school building, and winter cold temperatures that can drop to 70 degrees below zero.

New school construction can afford new capital improvement that can revitalize an old community or anchor a new community, as well as creating a more flexible, open layout, Alexander says. Often, new construction can be completed more quickly, and makes it easier to plan for new technology by installing the necessary wiring and conduits.

Reid says that any project, be it renovation or new construction, should be defined by the district’s goals, derived through a competent and thorough approach. “The best projects come from the best processes,” he says.