Small Budgets, Tight Schedules, Big Expectations

While we are beginning to see faint glimmers of economic improvement on the horizon, the fallout from the recession will impact colleges and universities for years to come in the form of uncomfortably lean budgets and an appeal to do more with less. While new construction projects may be deferred or delayed, maintenance and capital improvements through renovation are often not discretionary. Just because resources are scarce and finite doesn’t mean that existing facilities stop requiring investment to stay safe and functional, and to hold their value and utility to the community. Nor is it the case that existing buildings necessarily continue to serve their original programmatic and pedagogic purpose without evolving and changing. And, as always, both the maintenance and functionality of existing buildings are critical in the competitive world of attracting and keeping faculty and students.

Faced with the double-edged challenge of physical deterioration and declining functionality in buildings with high iconic value, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Brown University recently proved that, with ingenuity, frugality, and efficiency, renovations of iconic campus environments can look great and perform well without breaking the bank.

Existing Conditions
Located along the northern edge of a wide green overlooking the Charles River and Boston’s skyline, Building 10 has pride of place at MIT. An organizing element of the Cambridge, MA, campus, it was one of the first structures built following the University’s move across the river in 1916, and it has made cameo appearances in everything from Good Will Hunting to episodes of Star Trek. Crowning its confident neoclassical form is the Great Dome, which has hosted some of the community’s most memorable practical jokes, including the dome reimagined as R2D2 from the movie Star Wars. With its storied lineage and colorful past, it’s clear that Building 10 is an integral part of the culture and campus life of MIT. So it is somewhat surprising that the space beneath the Great Dome — a majestic rotunda ringed by 30-ft.-tall columns — had become a neglected and forlorn reading room serving the mechanical engineering department. In a survey of available study spaces, students described the Barker Reading Room as better suited to snoozing than studying, owing to its low light levels and maze of tall periodical shelves that subdivided the circular space. These defects, compounded with worn finishes and inadequate furnishings, made it one of the least utilized spaces in MIT’s library system. MIT was anxious to return Barker Reading Room to its place as a viable resource for study (such resources being in high demand), as well as a place of significance in the architectural heritage of the campus. Unfortunately, funds were extremely limited, and the University needed to be extra cautious as the Room was slated for more major renovations, associated with improvements to the dome’s waterproofing, over the next several years. It would not have been prudent to invest significantly prior to envelope upgrades.

While the design problem at MIT revolved around one component of a robust library network, in Providence, RI, the situation Brown University officials confronted with Lyman Hall impacted a highly visible department on campus, Theatre Arts & Performance Studies. With dramatic and dance performances scheduled regularly throughout the year, Lyman Hall is a magnet for social and cultural life for the entire Brown community, and its position along a prominent corridor in the historic campus core puts it in the path of pedestrians in their regular commutes.

By 2006, the richly detailed Richardsonian Romanesque building was showing signs of excess wear from 115 years of continual use, first as the school’s gymnasium from 1891 to 1946, and finally as the home of the Department of Theatre Arts & Performance Studies, which occupied the space beginning in 1979, installing a theater and flooring over the pool to form a dance studio. Structural deficiencies, deteriorating finishes, and waterproofing problems plagued the building and threatened its integrity and character. In addition, the radical shifts in programming over the course of the building’s lifespan had resulted in a disorganized layout, wasted and underutilized space, and incoherent circulation that made it intimidating to visitors, uncomfortable for students, and difficult for the faculty to find physical space to support its dynamic and evolving academic programs.

Shaping Tasks to the Challenges
Both institutions had limited budgets and schedules fixed to the summer recess, since neither institution could operate without these facilities in active use during the school year. The task and challenge of each project was therefore to exercise restraint, prioritize a menu of possible improvements ranging from structure and infrastructure to layout and function, and to implement those within the tight budget and schedule. In addition, being iconic and treasured buildings in an academic environment, there was no shortage of input from administration, faculty, and students.

Despite the challenges and differences in programs, sizes, and budges, each project was approached in a way that balanced their myriad competing priorities and resulted in success. This process can be distilled into the following guiding principles.

1. Align regularly around the institutional goals of the project — MIT’s Facilities department was keen to renovate Barker Reading Room, but the decision to do so was complicated by a separate plan to restore all of Building 10 at a later date. Although an interim renovation would alleviate many of the functional problems that prevented students from utilizing the space, and restore it to use for several years prior to the total restoration of the building, there was uncertainty as to whether the small budget could produce enough of a transformation to be worthwhile. Some were concerned about duplicating efforts or compromising opportunities for the complete renovation. Signer Harris Architects was enlisted to study the space and produce design options that would identify ideal uses and operational needs and explore different spatial configurations and furniture solutions to arrive at a clear picture of whether the interim improvements made sense. As students’ criticisms revolved around issues of furniture and lighting, the design brief restricted the project’s scope to the interior space and left for the complete renovation those problems associated with the architecture and building systems, which reduced upfront costs and prevented duplicative efforts or lost opportunities in the total renovation. Students were part of both the programming and evaluation of design options, providing valuable input during a design charrette with library administrators and the Facilities department, led by the architect. By the time the charrette was complete, there was consensus on the design solution because all parties shared the institutional goals that defined the solution.

At Brown, clarity about the scope of the intervention was achieved through discussions about the institution’s pre-existing initiative to restore the historically significant buildings on main campus and the department’s principal activities: scholarly production, performance, and study. Thus a successful renovation would bring back and preserve for the future all of the building’s significant historic details at both the exterior and interior, as well as create functional and attractive multi-purpose spaces that could accommodate the department’s changing curriculum, which was expanding to include playwriting and oratory. With that broad mandate, Signer Harris Architects prudently surveyed the building and developed a hierarchy of repairs and design opportunities, isolating the most expensive interventions and evaluating these against cost, schedule and benefit to the community, creating the conditions for a renovation that would satisfy the expectations of both institution and department without over-designing. The strategy that all agreed on included: First, secure the structural integrity and the building envelope. Second, allocate assets to address the functionality of the spaces within the building. Third, realign circulation to enhance movement, collaboration, and flexibility within the building.

2. Utilize and design from your assets — they’re free! —
Lyman Hall has many architectural features that were just waiting to be exposed and restored, including intricately carved sandstone columns, capitals, balusters, and trim, which had oxidized and were flaking away, as well as ornately mullioned original glazing, some of which had been in-filled. The goal of the exterior historic preservation work was to make structural repairs and to renew the building’s architectural gravitas and provide a gracious arrival sequence for visitors. The decision to concentrate on the preservation work established a hierarchy in which the modern palette of materials and finishes utilized on the interior works as a subtle and respectful backdrop to the exquisite original detail. This arrangement had the effect of limiting the scope of the interior renovation.

It was expected that the classrooms, faculty offices, and administrative areas would be attractive and multi-functional, but they were imagined as supportive of the original architecture and the department’s programs, rather than figural design elements in and of themselves. The modified arrival sequence exemplifies this light-touch approach. The administrative office, for example, was always adjacent to the lobby, but its entrance was around the corner and down the hall from the lobby, effectively turning its back on the main entrance with a solid wall. The new design remedies the awkward circulation and introverted layout by reorganizing the administrative spaces so that their entrance is on axis with the building entrance, and by wrapping the office in glass panels, providing acoustical separation and security without obstructing sightlines. This new layout creates a natural “center” for the Department of Theatre and Performance Studies. The new layout also creates a porous relationship with the fully restored and code-compliant balcony, so that both spaces can be utilized for department receptions.

MIT was similarly aware of the architectural treasure of the Barker Reading Room. Prior to the renovation, oversized metal magazine racks and an inadequate lighting scheme masked the Dome’s coffered ceiling and ornate columns. Removing the racks, which had outlived their usefulness (as most journals are now available electronically), opened sight lines and improved circulation, allowing the visitor to take in the space’s enormity and grandeur all at once. New wall-washing light fixtures and sconces highlight the columns’ crisp scalloped edges while raising ambient light levels, so the space seems noticeably brighter.

3. Adapt the design to the programming realities of the space — Demand for seats in MIT’s network of reading rooms outstrips supply during exam period, as students appreciate the reliable quiet and extended hours. Because Barker fell far short of its peers in providing an optimal environment for study, students preferred to study elsewhere during crunch time, leaving fallow ground during a critical period. In addition to satisfying these demands, the space routinely hosts notable campus events, including the annual reception for new graduate students and cocktail parties for faculty and staff, so the new layout should also adjust to accommodate social gatherings.

In addition to supporting these two uses effectively, the design also had to successfully integrate four towering pole-mounted light fixtures that hover in the center of the room, since replacing these was determined not to be a priority given the limited funding available. Although some design options explored organized, grid-like spatial layouts, with desks and carrels arranged in neat rows or a radiating star formation to echo the lights’ relationship with the space, it was decided that these layouts were too static to be multi-functional for study or inviting for social gatherings. The most successful solution echoes the form of the Mobius sculpture that dangles from the oculus. Amoeba-shaped area carpets define zones of activity and circulation, while absorbing the lights’ rigid geometries and softening their impact on the space. Groups of soft seating provide casual study space and conversation areas for receptions, and the work tables and study carrels can be easily removed or reconfigured to open floor space for events. The new design, therefore, is a counterpoint to the classical architectural form of the room itself, making the space all the more grand.

The renovation of Lyman Hall rectified spatial inefficiencies and unused potential brought on by the building’s drastic programming changes. Conversations with student, faculty, and institutional stakeholders exposed specific opportunities to enhance existing programs and support the new curriculum. A highlight of this effort is the restoration and renovation of the department library. New built-ins and rolling bookshelves replace rickety steel shelving that previously teetered in the center of the room, freeing half the space for the inclusion of two 8-ft. work tables and groupings of soft seating surrounding the original paneled fireplace. Instead of serving as an oversized closet, the space now supports playwriting seminars, script readings, and faculty meetings, and can even be pressed into service as an impromptu performance venue.

Other features addressed by realigning the space and program include moving the theater’s dressing rooms, which don’t require daylighting, to an entirely interiorized position, and locating classrooms along this edge, providing them with natural light and ventilation. Similarly, the position of a graduate student lounge and a media classroom was swapped when it was discovered that the classroom required blackout panels on the windows for film screenings, a decision heartily approved by both user groups.

4. Use resources creatively and efficiently — To help drive down the cost of renovating Barker Reading Room, some pieces of furniture and fixtures that survived the 30-odd years since the last renovation were recycled into the design. MIT’s in-house interior designer coordinated refinishing existing open work tables and study carrels along the perimeter, which were paired with new ergonomic task chairs. Students expressed a preference for the existing cube-like lounge chairs, which support casual study while discouraging conversation, so these were reupholstered in soft sage chenille and arranged in small groups throughout the space. MIT’s in-house repair and maintenance crew painted the space under a maintenance budget during spring break, which diverted some costs of the renovation away from the project’s budget and conserved valuable time in the limited summer construction schedule.

Time may be the scarcest resource on a “summer slam” project, and Brown addressed this by engaging trusted collaborators early in the process. For instance, when red slate was selected as the roofing material following extensive research of this and nearby buildings’ original construction, Brown enlisted one of their regular roofing contractors to verify that the structure could support the load prior to ordering the material. After it was shown to be sound, Brown worked against the clock with their construction manager to generate an early release package for just the red slate, which has very long lead times owing to its limited availability. This move enabled the design team to continue refining other aspects of the design while waiting on the arrival of the red slate. Additionally, it was determined that the Lyman Hall project could be completed over the course of two summers, with the first addressing the necessary exterior restoration work and the second for the interior. This allowed the department to stay operational.

5. Stay nimble and informed during construction — Older buildings always conceal important details that impact the construction process and the design outcome, so it is important that information flows freely between members of the design and construction team throughout the process. Devising an appropriate response saves time and expense during construction and frequently turns up design solutions that are especially in tune with the existing building and project goals. Since lighting was an issue at MIT, chasing the old wiring proved to be an issue that required close oversight during construction and impacted lighting controls. Signer Harris Architects was also on site during the carpet installation, determining its final shape and proportion in the field, with the scale of the space providing the ultimate validation of the design.

Sometimes outside initiatives impact the project, which was the case at Brown. A concurrent campus utility project emerged as construction was underway at Lyman Hall. The building serves as a central pivot point with lines peeling off to other buildings on the quad. The challenge was to integrate the utilities with minimal impact on the approved design. Although a solution was devised to run utility lines along the ceiling of the basement level, demolition exposed an existing sub-basement crawl space, so the architects quickly advocated for depressing the utility lines into the crawl space and then through an existing tunnel that was once used to service the pool in order to connect the utilities to the Mind/Brain Building next door. Renovations of older buildings will always expose unanticipated conditions like this. The goal is to stay flexible and responsive throughout the process so that appropriate responses can be made.

Ultimately, in addition to the five principles explored above, the success of a renovation project relies most heavily on the individuals actually making the decisions, and on their ability to collaborate: owner, user groups, architect, and contractor must all recognize that the success of any one party will impact the others, and that the success of the project as a whole comes first.

William S. Harris, AIA, LEED-AP, founded Boston-based architecture firm Signer Harris Architects in 1989. With a primary focus on integrating strategic planning with design, Mr. Harris and his team have won awards for design as well as for implementation and project delivery.