Adaptive Reuse on Campus

Adaptive reuse has become an increasingly popular option for institutions in need of expanding or changing facilities on or near campus. What many may consider a smart growth concept, building reuse can also be an efficient and environmentally responsible way of reclaiming older resources. There are pros and cons to reusing an existing building, and we will explore a few of those, as well as the important items that should be considered during the process of evaluating an existing building for reuse.

As designers, it is our underlying goal to understand our client’s objectives and help move them forward in a direction that best meets their current and future needs. This is no different when evaluating an existing building for potential reuse.

Generally, the choice to “reuse” will include the decision to renovate a significant portion of the existing facility to accommodate the new program. When evaluating “reuse” versus “build new,” it is important to consider the pros and cons of each choice.

The pros and cons of new construction are more straightforward than with a reused building. With a new building comes the ability to include state-of-the-art energy-saving building systems, modern materials and forms, and current design trends. The cons to new construction are rarely discussed, but they include the difficulty of finding open land on a college or university campus in the perfect location for the required program. Additionally, new construction will always go through a time when the design is “old” and “out-of date” before it becomes appreciated again.

The pros and cons to building reuse are sometimes less obvious.

Pros to Building Reuse
Recycling a piece of campus history/maintaining a community icon — Reusing an existing building on or near campus can be an inspiring event that energizes the local community, students, and faculty. Finding a suitable building can be a challenging process. If the location and “bones” of the building are good, a creative design team can modify the building to meet or exceed the program requirements, the sustainable goals, the energy saving objectives, and the academic requirements, resulting in high performing — yet unique — learning environments.

Environmentally friendly — Our firm believes that the most sustainable building is one that is already constructed. According to the EPA, building demolition accounts for up to 136M tons of building-related construction and demolition debris each year in the US.

Buildings not only use energy in their day-to-day operations, but a considerable amount of energy is consumed in the construction phase of a project. This is called the “embodied energy” of a building. It includes all of the energy used in raw material extraction, raw material processing, product fabrication, transportation, and the assembly of the completed building. It is estimated that buildings use 40 percent of raw materials globally (3B tons annually). The demolition of existing buildings not only adds waste to our local landfills, squandering the resources used in the original construction, it also “throws away” the initial energy used to construct them.

— Many believe that historic or older buildings are inherently energy inefficient, but the opposite is typically true. Traditional construction methods used in most historic buildings are often as efficient or more energy-efficient then those used in newer building designs. Existing buildings (especially those more than 50 years old) often incorporate intrinsic properties such as heavy masonry walls, natural ventilation, passive heating and cooling systems, and daylighting. When this is understood, it may become apparent that the most sustainable and energy-efficient building for your campus is the one that is already constructed.

Cons to Building Reuse
Complexity — While the reuse of an existing building provides a wide variety of benefits and opportunities, it can include complex and frustrating issues. Architects and engineers can provide council in the early stages of discovery, but not all issues will be uncovered during field verification. Changes in occupancy and use may require a new level of code requirements. Construction coordination and scheduling can also challenge the process, especially if the building remains in use during the renovation process.

Design and construction schedule
— While many believe the renovation of an existing building will allow for a shorter construction schedule, the truth is it may take even longer then the construction of a new building, especially if the project includes a complex demolition period. Additionally, accommodating existing programs in the building during the construction period is never recommended, and it always adds cost to the project and time to the schedule. Relocating the existing users to another facility can be a difficult chore. Weighing these two options early in the decision-making process and building consensus around the final decision is imperative to the project’s success.

Contingencies — Owners of public institutions may be required to hold an increased construction contingency percentage for renovation projects. This contingency is meant to cover the cost of “unforeseen issues” that will be uncovered during the construction process. For most public institutions, this is mandated. This may not be required for private institutions, but it is an important consideration if a substantial renovation is being pursued. After hundreds of renovation projects, we have found that no matter how good the existing drawings seem to be or how thorough the field verification was managed, something will show up in a wall, above a ceiling, or below a floor that must be modified during construction.

Once the viability of an adaptive reuse has been confirmed, there are a few important considerations that will help direct the efforts in the site and building selection process.

Site Evaluation
A general evaluation of the site and surrounding context should be addressed.
  • What is the site’s proximity to campus?
  • How does this location add to or subtract from the current campus master plan?
  • Is there a strong pedestrian or bike path near the proposed site? (i.e., How are students going to get there?)
  • Is there a public transportation route to the site?
  • Is there a cost-effective opportunity for parking? Is the existing parking adequate?
  • What are the benefits or limitations to the site? (i.e., Is there any natural landscaping that will make the site a destination for students?)
  • How much of your budget will be spent making the site accessible and inviting?
  • Is there any historic relevance to the building or site under consideration? (i.e., Community icon?)

Historic Structure Assessment
If the site fits within the campus master plan and vision, and the reuse of a building is deemed appropriate, the design process should begin with an assessment of the existing conditions. This should include an assessment of the building’s existing energy efficiency and sustainable design strategies. Consultants experienced in the rehabilitation of existing and/or historic buildings should conduct the assessment. Buildings constructed before 1950 could be historically significant — even if not currently designated as such — and are typically quite different than those constructed after 1950 in terms of their energy usage and durability of materials. The building assessment may encompass items such as window rehabilitation, the building materials, and their ability to influence the heating and cooling systems. These elements have a tremendous effect on the building’s energy efficiency. The assessment should also address the following considerations:
  • What do the core and shell of the building provide for energy savings? (i.e., overall integrity of the structure, solid foundation, proper orientation for daylighting, proper proportion and/or volume of sub-spaces)
  • How much of the original structure can be kept intact?
  • Will we need to address hazardous materials? (i.e., asbestos, lead, etc.)
  • Can any of the systems be reused or modified for new uses?

Energy Modeling
Generally, energy modeling will help in evaluating potential building systems by determining the energy savings and “dollar returns on investments.” Typically the energy modeling software will generically recommend upgrades to the building envelope. These recommendations need to be balanced with potential historic preservation issues such as character-defining windows, important interior trim or other finishes, and the retention of as much original material as possible. Although windows are often the first targets in renovation projects, the study of their replacement often indicates an exceptionally long or impossible payback period. Insulating roofs, basements, and mechanical piping can provide significant energy-efficiency gains with a lower first cost and then some building envelope upgrades without the loss of integrity to the historic fabric.

In the energy modeling process, information about the building’s construction is collected and used to create an accurate electronic replica of the existing building. Once complete, the model allows the design team to test various scenarios without harming the building.

After evaluating several options, the team will select the most cost-effective approach and update the model to include all the proposed system modifications. This “final model” will be compared to an equivalent electronic replica, which is outfitted with an industry standard (ASHRE 90.1), or “baseline” system. By comparing the two, the software can predict the potential energy savings. A life-cycle cost analysis can then be calculated to compare the potential energy savings cost with the first cost, providing the school a payback period for their upfront investment.

Items that may be evaluated in the energy model include: improved insulation in the roof and walls, higher-performance window systems such as storm windows or window replacement, and heating systems such as boilers. This powerful tool allows for comparison to actual energy use, the ability to make changes, and quickly see the effects on energy use. This process helps develop recommendations that will have a dramatic effect on building energy performance and lower energy costs. In the end, the energy modeling can address life cycle, costs, and paybacks to help the team be selective about materials and systems specified for the renovation.

An adaptive reuse is not always applicable in every instance, and it is fair to say that not all existing buildings should be spared or renovated to current sustainable standards. At the same time, it should be noted that reuse of existing buildings, or even parts of an existing building, is a sustainable concept, and careful consideration should be given through a conscious process of vetting and discovery.

Jennifer Cordes, AIA, LEED-AP
, is a principal and Melanie Short, AIA, LEED-AP, is an associate for SLATERPAULL Architects ( in Denver, CO.