This Old School: Renovate Or Rebuild

The decision to renovate or build new is a complex one. There are many ways to analyze the topic based on budgets, finances, student needs and even the emotional connection between the community and the building, all can be equally important. There is no one solution that will be right for everyone, but when you break down the details and make decisions based on what is best for your community, you are off to a good start. To really analyze the nuts and bolts of this issue, you should thoroughly assess the state of your facilities, know what your goals are, have a solid budget, and consider the needs of your community.

Facility Assessment: What are we working with now?

Most architects, owners’ representatives and some contractors provide services to help you assess the condition of your building. A good analysis will be comprehensive and look at all aspects of a building, documenting the condition of each component, estimating the life expectancy and determining the cost of replacements or upgrades. When they complete their assessment, you will have a realistic look at the condition of your building and know how much life is left in the building. You may not want to demolish a building that is in good condition with systems that may have many years of life in them. Your trusted professional can help you determine the good, the bad, the ugly and the strong.

Setting Goals: Where do you want to go?

Goals should be established early in the process. High level goals can be established before a facility assessment and readdressed into more specific goals after you gain an understanding of your situation. You can set goals prior to thinking about the cost of the building as your goals can always be tempered later. Begin by asking yourself questions like “What spaces do I need to serve our curriculum?” “Do I want to improve the function of our school?” “Do I want a facility that is like-new?” If your community has evolved to be more environmentally conscience, perhaps a more energy efficient building has been discussed. Demographer reports for enrollment growth, changes in instructional programming, and even they way the community perceives the campus can be considered when establishing goals.

Your current facility was likely designed to meet the needs of your students, curriculum and community interests at the time it was built. Have any of these factors changed? If they have changed, what do you need to meet the future demographics and programming? After you have answered these questions and established some preliminary goals, you can begin working on your budget.

Crunching the Numbers: Dollar per year of use calculations

Knowing the state of the current facility and narrowing your goals will make it easier for you to develop a budget for renovations or a new building and even for large items like systems maintenance. At this point, you need to crunch the numbers to determine the path to take, and the trick is getting the numbers right. In general, renovating is cheaper than building new, but a lot goes into making that decision. One thing to keep in mind when renovating is the burden that comes with the cost to maintain an older building. This needs to be considered with a new facility too, but the costs will come further into the future when you build new. Your design professional can help you do the math to determine whether the buildings lifespan and service to your community is worth the money spent. What will it cost to renovate the building and how much life are you adding to the current facility? What is the cost of building a new facility and what is the lifespan? Which option offers the greatest value? Are funds available to build new or will your budget require renovations? Do you have the money or will you need to consider financing?

The Community: Looking back and looking forward

When you have an estimated budget to work with, it’s important to seek the community’s input. Oftentimes, schools built around the 1950’s have architectural charm and are often fixtures in the community. Community members who grew up in that school and have fond memories of it may want to preserve the building. Sometimes trying to force modern curriculum into aging facilities can compromise the function and service to your students. Other times creative solutions can be found to bring new life into an older building without sacrificing function.

There may also be some in the community who have a desire for change and want to provide updated facilities and programs for their children. They may view this as an opportunity to embrace change for the betterment of their students and community. Choosing this option may garner support, but you must proceed with caution and beware of the desire for building something shiny and new, while overlooking a good, strong core of a facility that can be brought back to life with creative problem solving and planning.

As you can see, there are a lot of factors involved when deciding to renovate or rebuild but one very important factor is community input. Community input should be considered in the early stages of planning and a channel for communication can be provided that will allow for continual two way dialogue between the planners and the community. It can be very frustrating for building or renovation committees to put their heart and soul into a project for many months and have it rejected by the community.

Limitations of Renovation

With any renovation, there will be surprises. Many schools don’t have copies of original drawings. Even if drawings do exist, past renovations or additions may not be documented, but even the best set of documents may not provide an entirely accurate understanding of how your facility was built. There will always be hidden elements that no one can predict, such as not knowing what is behind walls or hidden from view.

While renovating will save you the cost of re-building the components of the existing building that you are saving, you are also forced to work within the limits of those components. Those limitations will be determined by how much you remove and how much you keep. If you keep only the foundation, you save foundation costs, but are limited to working within the shape of that foundation and the loads that foundation can carry. If you keep the structure, you save structural costs, but have to work within the volume of that structure and its carrying capacity. All the way up, if you choose to keep the interior walls, you save that money, but you are limited to what you can do within those walls.

Many older facilities used CMU interior walls, which bring about some unique challenges:

  • CMU walls aren’t friendly to wireless signals, and;
  • CMU walls don’t have a wall cavity through which you can run new conduit and lines for power and technology.

Both of these make older buildings with many CMU walls more expensive to adapt to modern technology needs.

For new schools, security and safety features like controlled access, secured entries and natural surveillance can be built into the campus environment through good design, technology and equipment. But for older schools, many educators are dealing with buildings that were designed decades ago presenting a few more challenges because those buildings were designed when the safety concerns we address with modern designs were not a significant issue.

We have worked on numerous renovation projects and they all have been different with unique challenges. We worked on a renovation project for an older elementary school where the community had strong feelings toward the building and did not want to see it torn down. However, the layout of the building did not match with their current needs, and the building was not in good shape. A thorough facility analysis, combined with discussions with the community, gave way to a great compromise. The building had a solid structure, but not much else could be salvaged. The community was proud of the building because it was built to last and to be expanded. After several meetings, we discovered what the community was really proud of with the building was that solid structure, but were not particularly attached to anything else. We ended up removing everything except the concrete structure of the building, and worked within those confines to reimagine the facility for their current needs.

Bringing it all together

The decision to renovate or build new is a complex one. Both options have their own pros and cons, but the best choice is one that will satisfy the bigger picture for your students and community. When you have a clear understanding of your community’s needs and weigh the results of each consideration, you have a solid foundation to help decide the best course of action. You can do a much of this on your own and we encourage you to do that. As architects, we are concerned with the built environment around us and we do these types of analyses all the time. Having your favorite architect assist you in walking through this process can help you with things you might miss and help you bring your vision to life.