To Build Up Or To Build Out, Act 1: To Build Up

Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of gravity,
or to engineer against it and by opposing build up?

Finding land to build on is becoming harder to do as land is becoming scarce in many communities and school districts. Communities are developing a growing interest in green spaces and school districts and municipalities are keenly interested in energy efficiency and long-term building maintenance costs.

It is no surprise, then, that communities are looking more closely at whether to build up or out — whether to build multistory schools or single-story schools. The dilemma is real. So much so that on new construction projects and even on additions we get asked this question almost every time.

Should we build up or should we build out?

If this were a building game show, that would be the 10 million dollar question. Folks really want to know the advantages and disadvantages of building a one story versus building a multi-story facility. At Reliance Architecture, we want to provide the best, most accurate information, while recognizing there is no one right answer. But there is probably an answer that is better for you, your project and your community.

So, when we talk about building a multi-story facility, there are many factors to consider. As soon as we explain the pros and cons of building multi-story, almost all of our clients chose to go single story. So, obviously, for this article, we will look at the advantages of a multi-story building. In our next article, we will look at the disadvantages.

Why Build Up: Multi-story Advantages

Financial: Potential for Operational Cost Savings

We live in Texas. For most of the state that means it gets very hot in the summer and then very cold in the winter, but more so in the panhandle and desert regions. Understanding the impact of your buildings envelope is important. The building envelope is the component that separates the exterior of the building from the interior, or the shell of the building. Why does this matter? A two-story building provides the advantage of having less building envelope, especially having less roof area. This means less potential for heat transfer between the outside and the inside.

The less contact between outside and inside of your building, the less energy you will need to use to heat and cool it. The less energy you use, the more money you have in your pocket.

And who doesn’t want more money from energy savings? But, we’re going to be honest with you: this is fairly minimal. While it gets really hot in Texas, controlling heat transfer at the envelope is one of the easier things to do with modern building materials. In the end, sizing a mechanical system these days is really about the number of people in your building, and keeping the air fresh for them, and only partially about heat transfer.

Travel Distance

In a large school, having multiple floors can reduce travel distance for students between classes. In a high school or junior high, where students change rooms between every period, this can dramatically reduce corridor traffic. I grew up in Wichita Falls, in North Texas. When I was in high school, we had 8 minutes between classes, and if you had two classes separated by the length of the campus, a dead sprint would barely get you there on time. Better upward design would have put less unneeded stress on students just trying to get to class on time, and interrupted fewer classes with students showing up late, which was a perpetual problem.

Necessity: Landlocked sites

Land that is available to purchase has become hard to come by in many school districts. Your building site may just make the decision for you. If your site is landlocked, multiple stories can provide a way to add space beyond the footprint area of the building.

We had to do this very thing on a project for a school district in central Texas.

The client wanted to add classrooms to their high school, but it was landlocked and the only property available was a small site adjacent to the high school. So we built up. Within the footprint available we were able to satisfy the needs of the district, the educational needs of the students and satisfy the community and neighbors by respecting the land.

Sending a Message

Winston Churchill said, “We shape our buildings and afterwards our buildings shape us”. This quote speaks volumes on the way a facility affects so many parts of our lives, our mindset while occupying the building, our feelings while approaching the facility. Colin Ellard is a researcher who studies the psychological impact of architectural design. In all of his studies, one of his most consistent findings in his research is that people are greatly affected by a buildings’ facade. If the exterior is complex and interesting, people react positively. Simple and monotonous design produces a negative reaction.

Multistory buildings can be expansive and expressive and promote a sense of pride and promote a sense of community. There is a reason that even the smallest early universities decided to build up. The grandeur of place that is made possible with the architectural language of multistory buildings is more nuanced and deeper than that of single story buildings. Just take a look at this building from my home town of Wichita Falls.

This is the original building for Hardin Junior College, built in the 1930s, and is now the administration building at Midwestern State University. It is not a large building. The central portion is where all the offices and classrooms were located with the two wings being an auditorium and a library. That central portion could have easily been built as a single story building. There was plenty of land available, as this was built miles from the edge of town at the time. But a decision was made, as in many early college buildings, to use the architecture to send a message. In this case, to communicate the elevated nature of a place of higher education.

So if you are trying to send a positive message with your facility, a multistory building can influence that message. They can express a sense of community and even create a campus like feel.

There are many costs, operational and environmental benefits to building a multi-story facility. Different community values and current conditions make it almost impossible to say if a multi-story facility is the best solution for you. I have attempted here to lay out the high points of what a two-story building can do for you. In our next article I’ll play devil’s advocate and do my best to talk you out of building a multistory building.