Renovation and Historic Preservation for Education

One of the most common triggers for planning and design projects in K-20 education is that existing campus facilities and resources no longer meet the needs of the institution. As education evolves to meet the needs of the twenty-first century, changes in pedagogy are driving changes in facilities for teaching at all grade levels, as well as in the infrastructure systems which support learning. While a new building offers the opportunity for a custom-tailored institutional fit, existing campus buildings are valuable resources, and the benefits of renewing an existing structure often outweigh those of new construction. The right approach to creating updated facilities within an existing structure depends on a wide range of factors from accessibility to zoning, not the least of which is “swing space” to house ongoing activities during construction. Planning for the preservation and /or adaptive reuse of historically significant or campus legacy buildings can be a particular challenge, particularly if the structure has exceeded its useful life beyond feasibility for reasonable adaptation to new uses.

Here are some recent examples from our practice requiring very different approaches.

The historic Robert Carr Chapel at Texas Christian University is a popular wedding venue, but the beautiful Georgian space built in 1952 is also used for worship services, memorials, lectures, concerts and Greek organization functions. Acoustically, the space needs to support everything from speech and unamplified instruments to amplified music to the resident pipe organ. Utilized by a variety of on- and off-campus stakeholders for a wide variety of events with sometimes conflicting requirements, the chapel was in need of major functional improvements. The rehabilitation project focused on increasing the flexibility and usability of the space, on improving accessibility and convenience both for the disabled and for general users, and on enhancing aesthetics and refreshing finishes without damaging the acoustics or changing the beloved look and feel of the space inside or out. Specific interventions included improvements to lighting and acoustics, including the addition of tunable acoustical absorption; integration of new audio/visual technology, creating accessible rest rooms and improving the accessible route, and making the chancel larger and more flexible.

A narrow addition within the existing roof line and expanded glazing enhance the painting studio at Hockaday

At the Hockaday School, the interconnected pavilions of Centennial Center combine new additions with comprehensive renovation of two 1960’s vintage buildings, including replacement of all MEP/F systems. Providing a total of 108,000 square feet of interdisciplinary learning space, the project brings together facilities for science and the visual & performing arts, enhancing and connecting previously isolated functions.

The original two-story Science Center was stripped to its concrete frame, a third floor was added, and the entire building re-clad. Corridor alignment was shifted to create collaboration spaces and allow new studio labs, which combine bench space and a lecture zone, to be right-sized for the evolving curriculum. In the Center for the Arts, the proscenium theater, visual arts studios and individual music instruction/practice rooms were built within repurposed existing space, but the acoustical requirement for high-volume space necessitated that the choir and orchestra rehearsal rooms and black box theater be constructed new. Other challenging interventions included the insertion of a new seating balcony into the theater and construction of a new 70-foot tall fly tower above the stage while surrounded by existing building. The previously independent pavilions were linked with a new lobby/gallery space, which is as likely to support a display of science research posters as an exhibit of paintings or ceramics.

A new corridor captured from outdoor space serves as the main circulation spine at Hockaday

The Middle School at Fort Worth Academy was a long straight corridor flanked by undersized classrooms with minimal windows, not at all appropriate for the school’s collaborative and project-based curriculum. After a master plan process focused on peer benchmarks and best practices to support the school’s unique pedagogy, proposed interventions include enlarging and reconfiguring classrooms for greater flexibility, adding large areas of interior and exterior glass to break down the isolation of individual rooms, and creating a new, flexible “radical collaboratory” at the heart of the school – one pod zoned for quiet individual and small group work, and the other designed for more activity and larger groups. The school anticipates a construction start in Spring 2021.

The “radical collaboratory” at Fort Worth Academy

To create a new unified campus for the Westwood School, GFF planned a comprehensive rehabilitation and re-purposing of an unoccupied industrial building for use as a Pre-K through Grade 12 private school for 500 students. Adding a partial second floor within high-bay space originally used for printing presses will increase the overall available floor area by approximately 25%. Portions of the roof will be removed and re-framed, with the center bays raised and columns eliminated to create clear span and height for a new gymnasium and black box theater. New window openings will be cut into the tilt-up concrete panel exterior, and all MEP, Fire Protection and Information Technology systems will be new.

Key challenges for renovation/preservation projects often include:

  • HVAC space and Floor Alignment. Buildings constructed prior to 1960 typically do not provide enough space above the ceiling for modern heating and air conditioning systems. This becomes even more of a challenge when the project includes a two- or more story addition, since floor levels in the addition want to align with existing floors, but the need for plenum space drives the new floor-to-floor dimension to be greater than that of the existing building.
  • Electrical System Capacity. Today’s education buildings require power everywhere, for computers and Instructional Technology and places to charge mobile devices, and older buildings often do not provide enough capacity or appropriate distribution. Because new HVAC and lighting systems are often much more efficient than those they replace, in a comprehensive renovation excess capacity can be re-allocated to convenience power, possibly making up the difference.
  • Vertical Circulation. The size, number and dimensions of existing stairways may not meet current code requirements, and elevators may not exist at all. Guardrails at stairs and floor openings may not satisfy safety requirements.
  • Building Envelope and Thermal Performance. Older structures often do not meet current energy standards for building insulation or glass performance. It is relatively easy to add insulation to the roof as part of a normal re-roofing process, but adding insulation to exterior walls is more difficult. Windows are frequently the weak point allowing energy loss through the building envelope, but a proposal to replace original windows in a historic structure is always a flash point with the preservation community.
  • Swing Space. Construction is messy and loud and sometimes dangerous, and it does not comfortably coexist with learning. If a renovation project cannot be accomplished over the summer, the school needs a place for operations to continue during the construction period. Phased construction can help, but multiple phases tend to drive up costs and extend the disruption to campus life. Some campuses have underutilized space which can help satisfy the swing space need, but modular buildings or leased space are often used as temporary quarters, the costs for which need to be reflected in the project budget.
  • Estimating the Costs of Hidden Surprises. Renovations almost always involve unforeseen conditions uncovered when things are taken apart. Allowing for the unknown in projecting renovation costs can be as much art as science, and requires an experienced Contractor or Estimator. One strategy we recommend is budgeting contingency funds which can be allocated to actual costs or returned to the Owner as real information develops. We often identify separate contingencies for Design, Estimating and Construction, which are retired at different rates over the course of the project.

As planners for the future, GFF brings both tested and new ideas to the planning process, considering evolving technology, phased implementation, peer benchmarks and current knowledge of pedagogical trends to create dynamic, adaptable, sustainable and people-centered learning places in both renovated spaces and new construction.

Jonathan Rollins is a Principal with GFF Architects