Old Buildings" Should You Renovate or Build New?

There is no doubt that the decision to renovate or build new is not an easy one for K-12 school administrators. The decision-making process can be long, complicated, and even frustrating. In an attempt to simplify the process, even if just a tad, here are five factors to consider when making the decision.

1. Program Compromises

Educational programs change through time. For example, the open classroom that was the rage of the 1970s is no longer fashionable. Obviously, schools that were built in the ‘70s accommodated that program style. If those schools can’t be renovated to meet today’s educational program, it may be wise to move toward new construction.

“Another example is the pod,” says Ryszard Szczypek, AIA, NCARB, a partner with Tai Soo Kim Partners in Hartford, CT.“Classroom pods are popular right now in middle schools and soon will be in high schools. If an existing space cannot equally or easily be divided into teams, it becomes a compelling reason to build a new school.”

Similarly, the architectural merit of the building in terms of its quality must be considered. If the spaces are reusable, and the building itself is worth preserving, it may be that the iconic dimension transcends the challenge of redoing the inside, notes Barry Svigals, AIA, a managing partner with New Haven, CT.-based Svigals + Partners. “It may not be a budgetary decision, but one that is serving the community in another dimension. We look at how it can be used in an efficient way and provide spaces to meet contemporary and future needs.”

2. Site Complications

Site issues that cannot be solved may be a reason to build a new school. Some may include environmental or traffic issues. Another may be that a community’s demographics have changed and redistricting is required to reduce commuting distances.

Another challenging complication is where the existing building is located on the site. “If you’re expanding, which is typical, the old building may not be quite where you want it,” notes Svigals. “You have to work with it and analyze it in the process of keeping the building.”

Mariano Vidal, RA, a project manager with New York-based Volmer Associates, adds yet another site complication — lack of swing space. “You have to itemize all the swing space a school district may have,” he points out. There may not be room for Temporary Classroom Units (TCUs) on the renovation site. Or the swing space may be undesirable in that it would create traffic issues or be out of proximity of school features like athletic fields. Even if there is swing space, it may be in a less-than-desirable space that itself needs to be renovated, restored or added to. All of these swing space issues could lead to a decision to build new.

3. Unaffordable Initial Cost

Another factor that could sway the decision against renovation is unaffordable initial cost. “If administrators feel they won’t get taxpayer support to do the work, it could be the factor that makes or breaks a deal,” observes Szczypek.

Svigals explains that the challenge is that it’s difficult to accurately project the cost of retaining the existing building before you start designing the renovation. “This is because how the building connects to your new design will be part of the cost, and you don’t know that cost when you start. In addition, there may be hidden structural flaws or deterioration that you can’t detect until you get into the project, such as a shifting of the brick.”

To help determine cost, Svigals strongly suggests starting with a careful analysis of the existing building. “You have to know what you have in order to determine its relative value,” he notes. “That’s done through careful analysis of the building’s soundness. Testing pays for itself through the avoidance of unpleasant surprises in the future.”

More, Svigals recommends analyzing the school’s historical merit: its place in the community, what’s happened in it through time and significant individuals who may have attended it.

While you’re evaluating initial costs, Vidal encourages administrators to plan for at least 10 years down the road, as opposed to the typical five years. He notes that it can take three years to design, program, plan, bid, and construct a project. That gives you two years to use the facility before it is outdated.

The challenge to projecting farther, however, is that the master plan becomes more expensive. “That’s when the question of initial cost comes up,” says Vidal. “Administrators have to pay more money now for a better design and a better product. That’s the challenge to evaluating initial cost vs. maintenance cost — you may choose to go with the lower initial cost, but it may not provide a low long-term cost.”

4. Unaffordable Long-term Costs

“If the existing building is becoming unaffordable in terms on ongoing maintenance, like you’re constantly repairing the HVAC system, or there’s little to no insulation in the walls and roof,” says Szczypek, “you may be compelled to build new as opposed to renovate.”

What’s more, notes Szczypek, the proper way to evaluate the true cost of a school is to evaluate life-cycle costs — the initial cost plus the long-term cost. Unfortunately, the trend is often toward making a decision based on initial cost.

Vidal suggests that a strong way to know long-term maintenance costs and, hopefully, stay a step ahead of the decision-making process, is to have a pragmatic, thought-out maintenance program. Beyond that, he recommends having a master plan. “Within the master plan,” he says, “there is a schedule and budget — all the work is prioritized.”

5. Potential Negative Impacts

This fifth factor is broad, as there can be numerous potential negative impacts in choosing to renovate. One is construction scheduling. “Let’s say you made the decision to do something, but you’re not sure which,” says Szczypek. “While deliberating, you realize that it’s going to take a whole lot longer to do a renovation than it would to do new construction. If you’re pressed with population growth, you may be swayed toward new construction.”

Another negative impact is safety. It’s critical to keep students safe during renovation, so administrators have to take extra measures, like ensuring the fire alarm is always operational, having proper egress at all times, and prohibiting overhead construction when students are below. Other safety issues include separating construction workers from students, making sure the right people are on the site, and providing them with ID badges.

If the community has an emergency management plan for dealing with crises, then another safety issue is whether the existing facility meets first-responder requirements. If it doesn’t, new construction may be in order.

A third negative impact is directed against the decision to build new, and that’s the existing building’s historical importance to the community. “Many people who may still be residing in neighborhood may have attended the school,” says Svigals. “So it has an important community dimension. Such schools are neighborhood icons and represent historical continuity to the community.”

The decision to build new or renovate is all about priority and schedule, says Vidal. Still, each of these five factors should be carefully and thoroughly evaluated when making a decision. And with good reason, concludes Szczypek: “If any one becomes sufficiently large, it could break the deal.”