Changing History

Something old, something new? That may work great in weddings, but how about campus renovations? In constructing new buildings, assuring good indoor environmental quality (IEQ) is a basic consideration. But when it comes to renovating older facilities, special efforts must often be taken to apply modern standards in acoustics, daylighting, thermal comfort, and air quality.

“When dealing with older structures on campuses, IEQ requirements are always a concern,” says Jeff Harding, director of MEP construction for Erland Construction in Burlington, MA. “The level of difficulty differs depending on the LEED rating the university is trying to obtain and the complexity of each individual project.”

He notes that IEQ has a broader range of concerns than just air quality, which can be addressed by installing proper ventilation and filtration systems. Not only does indoor environmental quality take pollutants into account, it considers how the entire indoor environment contributes to the occupant’s well-being.

Know Your Buildings

In the planning for renovation of older buildings, understanding their special qualities is a must.

“A thorough knowledge of the characteristics of older campus buildings is absolutely vital if upgrades are planned and sustainability is to be embraced,” says Samuel Carmack, Jr., chief engineer for Baskervill, an architecture, engineering, and interior design firm in Richmond, VA. He says in initiating a planned upgrade, it’s paramount to understand the effects of temperature and humidity on the structure as well as the effects that lighting, sound, and air movement have on its occupants.

According to Carmack, older campus structures generally fall within three categories. Buildings constructed before 1900 tended to have masonry materials such as stone and brick with windows and an occasional skylight for natural lighting and ventilation. Heating, if available at all, was from fireplaces. Typical roofing materials were shingles of slate, metal, or wood applied to gabled roofs without the use of building papers.

In the 20th century until World War II, similar building materials were still used, along with cast-in-place and limited precast concrete. With walls plastered on wood and metal lath applied to furring on the interior face of the exterior masonry, space was available for limited electrical infrastructure. Heating was from central boilers supplying hot water or steam to heating devices such as radiators or convectors, and windows on the exterior and skylights on the interior provided light and ventilation. Roofs were flat with built-up roofing materials, typically applied over a small amount of insulation board or constructed of lightweight concrete, and building paper applied to roofing only.

After the war and until the 1950s when mechanical air conditioning began to be incorporated into new campus buildings, some wall insulation and additional roof insulation were often added to the building, Carmack points out.

Today, modernizing buildings with features such as these poses a number of challenges.

“An issue often encountered is that the condition of the original structure can make it challenging to successfully install new features, such as windows,” says Ryan Moss, a St. Louis-based project manager for McCarthy Building Companies. “And materials and fixtures used in the original construction 80 to 90 years ago are difficult to find or to replicate.” Moss is currently managing the renovation of a gymnasium built in 1925 into a 70,000-sq.-ft. state-of-the-art Center for Global Citizenship for St. Louis University.

Sealing the Envelope

Jonathan Baron, an associate with Shepley Bulfinch, a Boston-based architectural firm, notes that part of improving IEQ in any building must include a tight building envelope.

“In an existing building, it can be tricky to make an exterior wall more airtight, and without a lot of destructive investigation, it can be difficult to know what measures must be taken,” he says. “Careful thought must be given to the types of unexpected conditions that might be encountered and potential remediation measures.”

As an example, he points to the complications that can arise with discovery of problematic materials when adding an air barrier within a wall.

“You might not be able to anticipate every potential condition, but some forethought will help you be prepared for whatever surprises are lurking within the existing walls,” he says.

Special needs, such as preserving delicate items that will be stored or displayed, may also merit consideration.

“Colleges and universities often house historical artifacts, works of art, and books that are essential to reflecting a school’s culture, history, and mission,” says Kerim Evin, senior vice president of operations for Skanska USA Building’s New England region. “In order to preserve these pieces, a building’s IEQ must be accounted for.”

Upfront Planning

In achieving good indoor environmental quality in historic facilities, clear goals must be established early on and then stressed and reexamined throughout the renovation process, according to Baron.

“It might be obvious that low-VOC materials should be specified and installed, but changes happen in the construction process,” he says.

He recalls a recent project for which his firm specified a special epoxy flooring with minimal synthetic components. While not a standard offering from the manufacturer, it was available when required. But the flooring subcontractor failed to recognize the product designation, assumed the architect made a mistake in the specification, and planned to use the standard product.

“It would have been easy to miss this change, but our construction administration staff caught the oversight and were able to stress that the special-order material must be used,” Baron says. “Since our staff understood the goals and intent, we caught what might have seemed like a routine product substitution.”

Moss recommends across-the-board involvement.

“It’s best to involve the design and construction team early in the planning process,” he says. “The time and effort spent in preplanning and mockups for everything from paint on plaster walls to lighting and windows can minimize surprises and guarantee a successful completed project for the entire design, construction, and client team.”

He also advises careful consideration of the costs that might be involved.

“It’s important for campus leaders to consider the additional upfront cost for adding systems that never existed or upgrading an outdated system in the planning of a renovation of an historic facility,” Moss says. “While that initial cost will be higher, there will be an eventual payback in better air quality and energy efficiency that should result in lower utility costs. It is important to consider the overall value to the completed project.”

Of course even when costs are accounted for, renovating older buildings has never been easy. But in an era of high expectations, more attention than ever must be given to the quality of the indoor environment. If proper attention is given to this factor as construction plans are made, however, historic structures can
be adapted to meet today’s exacting standards. 

Mark Rowh is a Virginia-based freelance writer specializing in higher education and business topics.