Building Blueprints (Facilities in Focus)

Making Historic Schools Useful Again

historic school library

As the country’s educational facility needs continue to grow, many cities and towns across the United States are faced with the option of building new schools or renovating existing school buildings. This choice can have enormous consequences in maintenance costs, operations costs, transportation impacts for both school users and neighbors, as well as shaping the future development of an area. If the renovation option involves an historic building it only adds to the complexity of the project, but the benefits can be great for the entire community.

The older a school is, the more likely that it is located in an established neighborhood. For the oldest schools, the city or town has developed and densified around them, adding new homes, neighborhoods, businesses and infrastructure. The intrinsic value of the site and land for older, established schools is revealed through the walkability and bikeability for students. Additionally, wellplaced neighborhood schools contribute to the community as a neighborhood anchor. Planning efforts for new public schools often involve green field sites and are driven by educational goals with little regard for land use and sound urban planning principles, siting them on main thoroughfares as opposed to being integrated with neighborhoods.

construction site of renovations of historic school

Building Strength. During the renovation of the historic Franklin High School, in Portland, Ore., contractors set up temporary inside supports to stabilize the structure while they performed tasks to improve the seismic strength of the building. This is just one of a number of issues that may need to be researched and addressed when renovating historic schools that have aging materials and building components that need to be replaced or refurbished in order for the school to meet the needs of students, teachers and administrators.

Along with the celebrated historic elements of renovating historic schools comes the aging materials and building components that need to be replaced or refurbished in order for the school to meet the needs of students, teachers and administrators. That can include several items that are considered dangerous, unhealthy, irreplaceable or unusable. Add to that the necessary close coordination with the appropriate historic agency or agencies that are involved with regulating historic building renovations and the complexity reaches a point where a program manager can add tremendous value in navigating these types of projects to successful outcomes.

To better illustrate the common differences that make renovating historic buildings more challenging, here is a review of a selection of things commonly encountered and how to set these projects up for success.

As-built documents and drawings for historic buildings highlight the skill of the craftsmen who built the structures and details years ago. In many cases, the existing architectural plans only include about 50 percent of the detail. It is truly unbelievable what these craftsmen did with such little guidance on the drawings, filling in the remaining detail with intuition and skill.

At the project outset, it is important to fully understand the existing conditions. If they’re not reflected on the drawings, laser scanning or 3-D photography is used to capture and import the building’s details into a modern Building Information Modeling (BIM) design platform that architects, engineers and builders can use to effectively estimate, design and buildout the project. This process leads to the development of a building model that is about 90- to 99-percent accurate.

historic school site aerial view

Some aspects of the building cannot be captured in the scan and invariably project teams encounter unforeseen conditions that are hidden behind walls, under flooring systems, in roofs or underground.

In order to investigate those areas that have unknown material histories through previous construction or renovations or even through weathering and wear, a process called “destructive testing” is recommended. Recently, we used this method to investigate the flooring materials on a school that was built in 1915. Floor borings were made in the main hallway to better understand what is under the floor. In some projects a material called magnesite was used which contains the hazardous material asbestos as a fiber additive.

Additionally, a hazardous materials survey is important to identify any other commonly used materials like lead paint which was used in construction as recently as the 1970s, or even lead piping or soldering.

historic school site aerial view

Because of the potential for any team to discover unforeseen conditions, it is advisable to have a contingency budget of at least 10 percent and perhaps even up to 20 percent to be better suited to manage the potential risk of costly mitigation efforts.

The experience of the team working on these projects is critical to their success. In the proposal request process it is necessary to specify that historic renovation experience is required and that the team has the appropriate specializations. Architects, engineers and contractors who know how to approach these projects can artfully solve problems and keep the projects moving forward toward the scheduled completion date, within budget, even while their discovering new details that alter the plan. While each project is somewhat unique, experienced teams learn lessons with each project that they apply to the next.

In some cases it is also important to have an archaeologist on the team to identify and process any artifacts found on the site.

Working with the appropriate local, state and/or federal historic preservation agencies is also important. Keeping those agencies informed of the process allows for a smoother schedule and contributes value to the careful renovation of the historic school.

This article originally appeared in the issue of .

About the Author

Kenneth Fisher is a program manager at Heery International. While he has worked on several project types, he has extensive experience in managing historic renovations of schools.