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Renovate and Reuse: Higher Education's New Mantra

Implementing a strategy with academic, economic, and other benefits
University Business, Nov 2010

Over the past few decades, colleges and universities have engaged in a kind of facilities arms race to build new, state-of-the-art dormitories, dining halls, classrooms, athletic complexes, and fine arts centers. Higher ed institutions face enormous competitive pressures to build buildings that rival what's on their peers' campuses. For many, cutting-edge means new. But as endowments have shrunk and donations to fund capital projects have dramatically slowed due to the economic downturn, more and more colleges lack the financial resources to continue to participate in this competitive drive to build brand new buildings.

Renovating existing buildings might just be the new "new" for colleges and universities. Renovating or updating systems and technology in existing facilities for the same use, reconfiguring buildings for entirely new functions, and building new or replacing old inefficient additions to existing structures can yield enormous benefits—benefits which may even surpass those of new construction. Those gains can include increased utilization of the campus core, control of scope and program creep, greater efficiency, reduced costs, enhanced sustainability, and improved town-gown relations.

On most U.S. campuses, especially older ones, the central campus core represents the iconic image of their college or university. The campus core is often considered sacrosanct by alumni and trustees and any potential change to the core is typically met with resistance and fear of altering the "brand."

For this reason, most new construction takes place on the outskirts of college campuses where there is often underutilized or open property. When expansion of space is considered, buildings that make up the core campus are typically perceived as too architecturally restrictive to be adapted to new uses, even though they may have outlived their intended usefulness or evolved to house functions that may not be the optimal use of valuable space at the heart of the campus.

Inherent limits on space can curb departmental "wish lists" down to "needs now lists."

A strategy emphasizing the renovation and reuse of these important buildings can enhance the functionality of the core campus while maintaining the character of the buildings and identity of the college. Creating new uses for older buildings can help integrate an increasingly diverse body of students by bringing them into the center of the campus, as opposed to new buildings, which may radiate students out to the edges of campuses. Renovations are also opportunities to enhance space utilization and create better quality space by introducing new technologies and creating smart classrooms.

At Wellesley College (Mass.), Pendleton Hall was renovated from an underutilized and technology-poor general classroom building to a state-of-the-art learning center housing seven academic departments. The result has been more cross-disciplinary teaching and shared symposia in the center of campus.

New building construction translates into fresh usable space on campus and often engenders a "blue sky" approach, encouraging each department to push expansion and creation of new programs, sometimes independent of the institutional directive or student/faculty needs. Renovation and reuse tends to create a different dynamic. Inherent limits on space can help tamp down expectations and curb departmental "wish lists" down to "needs now lists." At Middlebury College (Vt.), the renovation of the beloved 1927 Starr Library into the Axinn Center for Literary and Cultural Studies resulted in a highly collaborative effort by all departments involved to allocate limited space.

Renovation and reuse not only makes sense from an academic perspective but from an economic one as well. At Miami University (Ohio), officials are looking to make substantial improvements to existing residential and dining facilities over a 20-year period to increase the diversity of housing arrangements, attract new students, and keep more students on campus, thus helping Miami capture monies that might otherwise have been spent off campus.

A recent analysis by Shawmut Design and Construction estimates that campuses can save anywhere from 23 percent to 108 percent by renovating an existing building, depending on the age of the structure, in contrast to building new. Utilizing existing foundations and shells (outer walls) of buildings can represent enormous cost savings, and allows colleges to forego the expense of acquiring additional land, which may be necessary for new construction. This is an especially important consideration for urban campuses where land may be very expensive or unavailable.

Renovations do not always require installing new infrastructure to support the buildings, which can be served by existing water and sewer lines, and electrical and IT wiring. While systems upgrades may be needed if a building is being adapted for new uses, these are typically less expensive, not to mention disruptive, than installing new systems.

Renovation and reuse can pay big dividends in a college's relationship with its neighbors, helping smooth delicate town-gown relations. New construction, because it often is done on the outskirts of campus, is more likely to abut surrounding neighborhoods and directly impact residents. Even if it is not the intent, in the public mind, new buildings mean more space and thus greater capacity to add students, noise, and traffic. Building anew generally requires campuses to submit to an often protracted and contentious public approval process. While you may need to secure zoning changes to accommodate a new use for an existing building, the public approvals for existing buildings are considerably easier to attain and the process is less likely to attract negative attention.

Sometimes there is no substitute for new construction. New dorms may be needed to accommodate higher enrollments or increase the percentage of students living on campus. Colleges and universities may also choose the new construction route for reasons having to do with promoting sustainability and ensuring high-performing facilities.

It's natural to link energy efficiency and environmentally conscious design to new construction. But sometimes, the oldest campus buildings feature sustainable elements and can be retrofitted easily to reduce waste and energy consumption.

Existing buildings embody energy and materials that were spent in their production. Demolition of existing buildings produces waste, while new construction requires that we expend both new energy and resources.

A study by Mike Jackson, a visiting professor in the School of Architecture at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, noted that energy embodied in existing buildings, particularly well built historic structures, should be included in a holistic approach to sustainability. In comparing improving the efficiency of an existing building by 30 percent to new construction, Jackson found it took a period of over 50 years before new construction would achieve any lifecycle energy savings—longer than the life span of most new buildings.

Public approvals for existing buildings are less likely to attract negative community attention.

Many existing buildings, especially those built before World War I, are ripe for improvements that enhance their energy efficiency and reduce their environmental impact. Replacing old mechanical systems for heating, air conditioning, and ventilation with new, state-of-the art systems can deliver enormous energy savings. The floor-to-ceiling height of old buildings makes it easier to install these new systems. Air infiltration and solar heat gain have the most dramatic impact on energy use to sustain an acceptable indoor environment. Insulating unheated attic and basement spaces, rehabbing existing windows (rather than replacing), eliminating weight pockets that introduce cold air into the building (an equivalent of opening the window), and using window shading devices to cut solar heat gain are examples of noninvasive, economical investments with very short payback periods that result in significant energy savings.

Existing buildings, especially some of the oldest, are extremely well built and have features that can be adapted to many different academic uses, from new dry science buildings to residence halls to faculty offices and classrooms. Ironically, some of the newest buildings can be the most difficult to upgrade, as many post-World-War II structures were built of poured concrete, and their low ceilings make it difficult to integrate contemporary lighting, technology, and electrical systems.

College and university planners can't decide in the abstract whether pursuing new construction or renovation is the best approach. That decision will depend on many factors having to do with the site, existing buildings, and institutional objectives. Any approach will come with a set of tradeoffs that need to be weighed and balanced against the benefits. Renovation and reuse are often thought of as "second-best" solutions, but they can be the optimum strategy and produce results every bit as effective as new construction. The more you look at renovation and reuse, the more appealing it is as an approach to planning, design, and building regardless of the economic climate.

Robert A. Brown is a principal at the Boston architectural firm CBT. Paul Viccica, an associate principal at CBT, heads the firm's Academic Group.