Renovation vs. Historic Preservation

Renovation vs Historic Preservation


As campuses age, the question of what to do with older housing can pose challenges. One option, of course, is to restore buildings to their original condition. But while honoring an institution’s history, such facilities can also be seen by some as too old-fashioned and having a negative impact on the ability to recruit students to live on campus.

Another choice is to preserve important architecture while creating spaces that are relevant and exciting for today’s students, according to Julia Nugent, principal at HMFH Architects in Cambridge, MA.

“Modern students seek spaces that are visually stimulating, open and comfortable,” she says. “These are qualities not typically found in older buildings.”

The expectations of contemporary students can still be met, however, by modernizing old dorms or other facilities while preserving the historic aspects of these valuable structures.

That’s been the case at the University of Massachusetts, where an aging dormitory, Van Meter Hall, has been given an attractive new look while maintaining much of the original design.

“We uncovered intricate historic columns that had been hacked apart by previous renovations, covered with electrical conduit, and painted multiple colors,” Nugent recalls. Today, the now glossy-white columns, along with graphic sheets of glass, form the entry lobby and front offices. The results have been a pleasant surprise to the campus community. “The returning residential director commented that she had never even noticed the columns before,” Nugent says.

Another compelling element is a very large bay window overlooking the Berkshires.

“We restored the windows and woodwork and added a curving bench — our take on the classic window seat,” Nugent says. “The curves and the wide, low bench allow for a student to study quietly at one end while a group of friends sprawls out at the other.”

Similar successes have been seen at Flagler College in St. Augustine, FL, with a campus that includes 19 historic buildings listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

Among them are several buildings (Markland House, Thompson Hall, Wiley Hall and the Union Generals’ House) that were originally houses and now provide office or instructional space, according to Leslee Keys, a faculty member who also serves as director of historic preservation.

“Bedrooms were converted easily to offices, and baths were typically large enough to be modified for handicapped accessibility,” Keys says. “Living rooms or parlors are used for reception areas, seminar rooms or conference rooms.”

At Boston’s Berklee College of Music, a former urban mansion has been renovated to house classrooms, offices and performance spaces, Nugent reports.

“Modifications at the entry to address accessibility and energy codes introduce completely new materials, but they do not detract from the power of the historic façade,” she says.

Immediately inside the entrance the experience reverses, she notes, with the modern elements taking precedence. Some of the interior spaces, including formal living and dining rooms, are now used for high-tech performance spaces while retaining their historic character. Other areas that had less detail to begin with use glass, sculptural ceiling elements and color to create vibrant student spaces.

Balancing Act

While positive results such as these can often be attained, the process may also be problematic.

“Planning for projects that deal with existing structures, particularly those with historic value or designation, is a delicate balancing act for any institution,” says Stephen, vice president for campus life at Williams College in Williamstown, MA. He adds that it can be easy to assume that the flexibility generated by renovating instead of preserving would outweigh any perceived disadvantages, but in reality that equation differs from campus to campus and project to project.

Certainly, the time and cost involved can be significant.

“Renovation usually costs more than the campus administration expects,” Nugent says. “Dollar for dollar, renovating a significant historic structure to last for 50 more years is often more costly than building new.”

Keys says the need to retain highly skilled craftspeople can drive up the costs of renovating, as can dealing with damage that is more extensive than first realized when a project has been undertaken.

“But the results are dramatically better, and the final product presents more effectively,” she says. “This is important for attracting high-caliber students, faculty and staff.”

Considering Options

While in many situations the investment in renovation is worth it, this is not always the case.

“Not everything is worth preserving,” Nugent says. “Just because a building is old, it is not inherently important or beautiful. Look at the bigger picture before you invest in renovations for an older building.” She advises posing a series of questions. Does the building contribute to the campus? Does it have intrinsic qualities that are worth preserving? Does the building support or hinder future projects? What is the cost of doing a renovation versus building new?

It’s also important to consider the emotional angle when it comes to modifying historical structures.

“As in everything we do in higher education, process is more important than outcome,” Klass says. “That rings especially true when it comes to issues like this that touch all constituencies in both predictable and unexpected ways. It’s impossible to devalue the degree to which this is the case when it comes to architecture in general, and to the strength of the emotional attachments to buildings and place that we develop during our college years.”

He adds that when it comes to historic buildings, there are so many combinations of variables at play in each project that it’s difficult to be prescriptive.

“It’s all about process and research,” he says. “This means performing exhaustive due diligence about what is going to matter most to each important campus constituency, while understanding as much as possible about the technical and regulatory impact of the proposed work.”


Stephen Klass, vice president for campus life at Williams College in Williamstown, MA, says that when it comes to renovations, colleges and universities are always balancing some combination of the following issues:

  • Focus. Are we repurposing the facility or continuing to adhere to a strict historic continuity of use? If the former, can we ensure that contemporary and future uses of the building can be accommodated effectively through either approach? Or is it better to plan new construction or adapt another, less historic structure?
  • Answering important questions about sustainability — do we meet our stewardship responsibilities more effectively if we restore, renovate or (if possible) replace?
  • Managing the expectations and emotional attachments of alumni/ae, students, faculty, staff and community members. This impact cannot be devalued and must be sensitively managed, especially at the early stages of discussion.
  • Analyzing capital and operating costs. Rationalizing one approach over another based on a life-cycle cost analysis of each strategy, especially if a change of use of the building is driving the work.
  • Addressing ongoing questions about facility efficiency — especially on campuses where there are numerous small buildings whose basic functions could be replaced with dramatically improved operational efficiency if it weren’t for the associated conversations around the perceived historical importance of maintaining the building as it has always been known. Of course, this correlates closely with sustainability and affordability.
  • Restrictions. On many campuses, historic registry designations can regulate significant and important constraints around the scope of work that can be performed and/or the kinds of changes of use that are allowable.

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

This article originally appeared in the College Planning & Management July 2013 issue of Spaces4Learning.

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