Renovation vs. New Build: Revitalizing the Grand Rapids Community

Most school district administrators think renovating existing facilities is more expensive and time-intensive than building new ones, but that’s not always true. In fact, renovation can often be accomplished for less the cost of a new building. In addition, all projects really can be completed on time (or even earlier), as well as under budget. It just requires careful planning and diligent effort. Michigan’s Grand Rapids Public School District is a perfect example.

From fall 2003 through spring 2004, the district and community created a Building Improvement Plan to determine appropriate levels of school improvements conducive to efficient and effective learning, teaching, and community activities. The goal was to provide appropriate and attractive spaces flexible enough to meet the needs of new initiatives; extend the life of each building for 30-plus years; meet all health and safety codes; and comply with federal and local mandates. After all, the buildings were roughly 65 years old, and they were constructed before energy conservation, before the American with Disabilities Act, and before the advent of personal computers. Nearly all of the buildings’ systems (roofs, boilers, electrical, mechanical, windows, etc.) had reached or gone beyond their life expectancy.

The plan included the following;

  • a methodology for a practical and fair way to prioritize upcoming work,
  • a prioritized list of schools to be built, renovated and/or consolidated,
  • consideration of redistricting as schools are built or renovated and/or if enrollment shifts (current enrollment is approximately 22,000),
  • recommendation that the integrity of historic school buildings be considered, regardless of future use, and
  • recommendation for a $150M bond issue, which passed with over 60 percent approval.

Phase I of the Building Improvement Plan involved the construction and renovation of seven elementary and four middle schools, four of which involved some debate regarding the age-old question: renovate or build new?

The debate was quite short for two of the schools because it was clearly smarter and more cost-effective to renovate than build new. The estimated construction-only cost to renovate plus build an addition at Harrison Park Elementary/Middle School was $15.4M, while a new facility would have been roughly $17.4M. The 1925 building has obvious historic details that made it worth restoring, like English Gothic architecture. In fact, students call it the “Harry Potter School.” Harrison Park Elementary/Middle School opened in September 2007, under budget and on time.

There was also little debate about Palmer Elementary School. This 1950s single-story school included revolutionary features for its time, like excellent ventilation and natural light. In the current age of environmental awareness, the district decided to renovate and make “green” the planning focus (estimated cost for a moderate renovation with addition was $5.3Mvs. $10.9M for a new building). To “green” it up even further, new ventilation, air conditioning and additional natural light were added. This building also presented the ideal opportunity to recast current space. For example, the original gym became the media center because it was undersized for current physical education activities but the perfect size to host a library and computer lab. Palmer Elementary School opened in January 2007 — seven months ahead of schedule and on budget.

Burton Elementary/Middle School was a different story because it presented an example of renovation ($28.2M) costing about the same as a new building. However, it was renovated to preserve history. This school sits on six acres and serves more than 1,000 students in a densely populated neighborhood. In addition to preserving its historic architectural detailing, which includes a Byzantine-style tiled entryway and terra cotta trim, there were two more major reasons to renovate. First, there wasn’t enough property available to build a new facility, and second, the school had always been a point of pride for the community. That’s because it was the first school in Michigan that cost $1M or more to build in 1925.

Burton also has active alumni, who asked the district to preserve its legacy, both architecturally and as a school. Renovation is ongoing, with an effort to make certain areas community friendly. For instance, the gymnasium is off a hallway, so adjacent walls were removed to create an outer lobby where people can gather before and after an event. Before, the school had multiple separate entries, but now there is one main entry that is open, airy and secure. The building also has a nicely detailed period-style auditorium. New buildings can’t justify the square footage of an auditorium like this, but since it was already there, it is being rehabbed and fit with modern features, like a new sound system and seating. Burton will open in fall 2008.

Alger Middle School was another example of the district choosing to build new because renovation would have cost $1M more. The existing facility just didn’t have enough square footage to match the district’s middle school standards, and if it was renovated, it would have needed an addition, which would have under-utilized the existing building. For example, the original building was 40,000 sq. ft., and another 60,000 was necessary. The new building is 80,000 sq. ft. and sits beautifully on the property. Alger Middle School opened in 2006.

Phase II of the Building Improvement Plan is ongoing and focuses on high schools and remaining elementary and middle schools. There’s no question this process has revitalized the Grand Rapids community. People living in the neighborhoods where schools are undergoing renovation and construction are making home improvements, which has increased property values, as evidenced by the influx of new families. Indeed, every new or renovated building was at capacity on the first day it opened.

The Building Improvement Plan has spurred a lot of related development too, like street and park improvement. Community members have also developed an interest in how community services reach their neighbors. For instance, organizations providing social services to families and students have co-located in some of the school schools, like a health clinic at Burton Elementary/Middle School.

The remarkable growth and revitalization the Grand Rapids area is experiencing did not happen by chance. It happened because district administrators, parents, teachers and community leaders actively participated in a planning process aimed at making the area a better place to live, learn, work and play. The continued improvement of school facilities must be one of a community’s top priorities if their goal is to retain and attract employers, workers, families and students.

William S. DeJong, Ph.D., REFP, is CEO of DeJONG. He is a member of  the National School Boards Foundation, was president and assistant executive director of the Council of Educational Facility Planners International (CEFPI), and was the executive director of the National Community Education Association (NCEA). He co-founded Schools for the Children of the World and has taught School Planning and Design at Harvard University for the past 12 years.