If the Building Fits, Use It

Say the term "adaptive reuse," and you immediately think of the commercial market — a retail box being converted to office space. You may even think of the housing market — converting a warehouse into loft apartments.

But, when you say "adaptive reuse," you don't immediately think of the K-12 education market. After all, history has shown that, when school districts need space, they renovate and add on to existing facilities, or they pass a bond issue and build new.

Unfortunately, site constraints and construction timing may prevent renovation. Similarly, site constraints, as well as cost, may prevent new construction. The surprising fact is the K-12 education market does participate in adaptive reuse and, therefore, contributes to reducing urban sprawl, reinvigorating deteriorating downtown areas and contributing to green construction.

"We consider adaptive reuse to be the ultimate in sustainability," says Jeffery Lynch, director of Business Development for Harrisburg, Pa.-based Murray Associates Architects, P.C. "It saves the cost of demolishing and throwing material in a landfill and then bringing in new material. It's just good stewardship to use existing buildings whenever you can."

A Perfect Example

Lynch should know — his architectural firm recently completed an adaptive reuse project for Harrisburg City School District in Pennsylvania.

Located off a square in the Harrisburg central business district, the original building was a Woolworth's store. Then it became a YWCA. After that, the building was purchased by Harrisburg University, which the school district partners with. District administrators, wanting a downtown presence, worked with the university to transform the building into Sci-Tech High School.

"Because it's a magnet school for math and science, the administrators wanted a school that would facilitate a dedicated curriculum and have the building house a business incubator for opportunities for students to work with small start-up companies and get hands-on working experience," says Benedict Dubbs, AIA, LP, a principal at Murray. "We did a study to verify the building's adaptability for the Sci-Tech program.

"From the time the YWCA moved out until the school district obtained it was six to eight years," Dubbs continues. "In that time, the building developed roof leaks, so there was interior deterioration." The adaptive reuse required upgrading the building envelope, demolition of all interior spaces and finishes, and infrastructure improvements.

Today, the facility provides three levels of instructional areas. The fourth floor includes space for faculty offices and incubator space for emerging technical businesses. The lower level houses a stand-alone food service operation and multipurpose room.

The 81,000-sq.-ft. project cost $11.5 million and was completed fall 2004.

Another Perfect Example

A second recent adaptive reuse project also comes out of Pennsylvania. The original five-story printing facility was built in 1928 to house the Philadelphia Enquirer. It was purchased in 2000 by a firm that had a vision to turn it into a telecom carrier hotel. That plan, however, ended with the 2002 technology fall-out. Although the building had been emptied of all equipment, and environmental remediation had taken place, it sat empty.

Wayne, Pa.-based Hooper Shiles Architects, asked to explore other adaptive reuses for the building, conducted feasibility studies. Those studies showed that, for office space, four design ideals would need to be completed. First, exterior windows needed to be added to provide natural light and open the building up to the street. Second, floor plates needed resizing, as they were too large for general office use. Third, building entrances and pedestrian walkways needed to be incorporated to interact with Broad and 15th Streets. Fourth, sufficient mechanical, electrical and plumbing components needed to be installed.

Work began in December 2003. Also in 2003, the School District of Philadelphia and the School Reform Commission saw that they could consolidate four separate storage and administrative sites into the renovated building. Purchasing the building and consolidating would save the district an estimated $1.2 million annually in operating expenses. It also would allow the school district's headquarters to be located on a large thoroughfare, so it became a win-win situation.

The adaptive reuse of the 865,000-sq.-ft. facility cost $24 million and was completed in September 2005.

Finding a Good Fit

When presented with the adaptive reuse option, administrators quickly find that the process is different from that of renovation and addition or new construction. It begins with evaluating a number of issues related to the facility and site to determine if it is a viable option.

1. Building condition: "The biggest issue is the building condition itself," says Lynch. "The floor plates have to be a sufficient size, and you have to have adequate clear spans from floor to floor. Ask if it makes sense and is worth the effort or if it will be a financial burden."

Kent Purdy, AIA, a senior associate at Hooper Shiles, agrees, suggesting that administrators carefully consider light and building entrances.

"Also, we look for hazardous materials like lead paint, mercury, asbestos and mold," adds Lynch.

"Once that's settled, we start thinking about the structure itself," says Lynch. For example, consider the roof loading. Ask if the structure is in good enough shape to handle the loads for the use, which is determined by building codes. "You want to be sure because you don't want to go back and do remedial work," he sums.

2. Site condition: The site itself needs to be appropriate to a school. For instance, is there room for recess, physical education and other outdoor uses like gardening or studying?

Parking is another site issue. "You need a clear understanding as to the parking and how the movement of vehicles and pedestrians occur so they don't cross one another," elaborates Mitch Shiles, AIA, founder and principal of Hooper Shiles. "If there will be buses at the facility, consider the cuing of the buses and pedestrian safety."

3. Utilities: Does the site have the infrastructure — the data lines, sewage capacity and water capacity — required to service the building, asks Shiles? Are they adequate in the building and the general area?

"Very old infrastructure exists in some areas, and municipalities aren't planning to upgrade them for a while, so the infrastructure might not support a proposed use of the facility at this time," says Lynch.

4. Building layout: "When it comes to structural components," says Shiles, "a lot of buildings are not designed to today's standards. So, if you're doing a substantial reuse, there could be a fair amount of structural modification to bring it up to today's codes."

To be sure, ask these questions for starters: Does the building meet ADA requirements? Does it have elevator shafts? How is the first-floor access?

5. Adaptability: "Look at the building from a flexibility point of view," says Shiles. "Explore common areas like toilet rooms and stairs, and how to place them to keep the adapted building functional and make it as flexible as possible."

Sci-Tech serves as an example of adaptability. "Natural light needed to be brought into Sci-Tech," says Dubbs. An existing skylight brought in some light, but it also brought in water. The skylight was reintroduced in a longer, more expanded form.v

Also, glass block was added on the fourth floor to bring more light into the classrooms. The windows are placed higher than usual. This was an effective way to let light in because the view outside is not picturesque. "We got the light in, and it was important because it had to be a stimulating environment. In an adaptive reuse, that may not always be easy to achieve," Dubbs says.

6. Logistical: Lynch addresses the issue of logistics in this manner: "If you were going to build new, would it make sense to plop a building where this one is?" Also ask if good transportation is available, is the site secure and will students be safe?

Sci-Tech turned out to have a great location logistically in that there's a public transportation hub located in the square. Students get off the bus and walk just one block to the school.

7. Legal: Here, you determine if the site is zoned for school use. "This could be a problem," says Lynch. "You may have to go for a variance or special permission if the site is not appropriately zoned. You should float it by an urban planner and the city planner to see if everyone thinks it's a good idea."

8. Historic: Historically significant buildings may be suitable for the proposed use, yet because they're historical, can't be changed enough to accommodate the use. "Some municipalities will let you change anything as long as you don't touch the façade," says Lynch. "Others are more stringent."

"Sci-Tech had gone through so many renovations in the past that the façade and interior layout had changed beyond the original retail so substantially that it wasn't an issue; but it can be," warns Dubbs.

9. Community: Ask if this is an appropriate location for a school? Will the surrounding community support the use?

Moving Forward

Once the determination has been made that the building is suitable for adaptive reuse, administrators can move ahead with programming and design. Both Hooper Shiles and Murray Associates recommend that the chosen architectural firm assemble the necessary team of consultants, which may include electrical, plumbing, historical analysis, parking and environmental firms. "By having it under one umbrella, it allows continuity," says Dubbs. "There's one point of contact with the owner so that, as decisions are made, it's easier."

Although different from renovation and addition, and new construction, the K-12 education market is actively participating in adaptive reuse as a way to meet facility needs. The effort results in many benefits, not the least of which include potential cost savings, meeting community needs, reducing urban sprawl and promoting revitalization efforts.