Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Building "Green" and Adaptive Re-Use

On Tuesday, November 16th, I was one member of an interview team that heard the presentations of firms interested in being involved in a possible cooperative building project with OSFC in our district.  We were supposed to have had time between each group to discuss among ourselves our impressions of pros and cons of each firm relative to our situation.  Unfortunately, it didn't work out that way and it was a "rush job" at the end to bring a recommended top 3 to the board meeting scheduled that same night.  It was not the best way to do business, frankly, although it was simply a matter of circumstances.

Anyway, each one of the teams included a short mention of their experience with re-using existing school structures as well as building something new.  A couple of them incorporated pieces of historic buildings into new structures built, as a way of compromise between the past and future. 

Back when the Swanton Enterprise headline read "Buy One - Get One" over the article concerning the building proposal for a new high school, one item discussed by the school board in office at that time was to save the 1904 structure and use it for district offices and possibly a senior center, etc.  The 1904 section was a huge undertaking for the small community of Swanton way back when it was built in a field.  It stood for decades as a tribute to the importance residents had for the education of their children.  People of that time made huge personal sacrifices to build the structure that was a crowning jewel in the community.  It was the legacy of many whose family names remain part of the Swanton community to this day, and possibly this fact contributed to the thought process of saving it at the time discussion took place on the new high school.

Possibly those who remember these discussions assume that saving the 1904 building remains part of the district overall goal.  But all I have heard is talk of plans to save architectural pieces of it for possible inclusion in a new structure.  That is not what the community was promised. 

I had been under the mistaken notion that the OSFC program required old structures to be bulldozed if the school district expected to receive any state funding assistance.  That impression was WRONG!

Here is an excerpt taken from "Renovate Ohio's Historic Schools" dated Feb. 2010:

During the initial years of the OSFC, a “2/3rd’s Rule” was created to determine if a building was to be renovated or replaced with a new school. If the cost to renovate an existing school was over two-thirds the cost to build an equally sized new building, then the OSFC would say the facility was to be replaced. The OSFC has since changed the “rule” to be more of a “guideline” and will now co-fund the cost of renovation up to 100% of the cost of an equally sized new building. The OSFC staff and consultants will not actively promote this option and it is up to those interested in renovation, within the local community, to advocate for a more in depth cost analysis for historic schools. If the local district’s facility assessment for renovation costs are greater than 2/3rd’s the cost of an equally sized new building and the district chooses to renovate the existing building, then a waiver needs to be submitted to the OSFC for approval.

Twenty-first Century Education

While not all facilities are candidates for continued educational use, many schools could be remodeled and upgraded. The National Clearinghouse for Educational Facilities (NCEF) published document, Historic Neighborhood Schools Deliver 21st Century Educations, provides the proof that “well-renovated, well-maintained historic schools can support a first-class twenty-first century education”.

Feasibility Study

The only accurate method to determine the condition and future usability of an older or historic school is to conduct a feasibility study by an architect, engineer or design professional that has experience with this type of facility. The document Renovation vs. Replacement & the Role of A Feasibility Study provides more details. After completing the proper studies, many school districts even find it less expensive and a better overall value to renovate existing buildings than build new schools. In most cases, schools constructed prior to the 1950′s were built to last indefinitely. These buildings did not have projected lifespans, while newly constructed schools are built to only last an estimated 35-40 years. By reusing an existing building envelope (foundation, walls, roof), total project costs can also be between 25%-40% less than building new.

Schools located in the center of town provide students with a tangible connection to the greater community. Across the country, the trend has been to abandon older, walkable schools in favor of a consolidated “educational campus,” usually closer to the edge of town. This practice has been shown to be detrimental to children’s health and welfare. Schools are not isolated from the communities that they serve. Now more than ever, children need to feel connected to the social continuum of past and future generations.

The recently published report from the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Renee Kuhlman (Director, Special Projects; Center for State and Local Policy), “Helping Johnny Walk to School“, outlines the many consequences of abandoning/demolishing existing neighborhood schools for new “mega” schools located on the outskirts of a community. State-level policies enforcing minimum site requirements and negative biases toward renovation within funding formulas are some of the main reasons why established historic schools are being lost. Ohio is a prime example of one state that invokes educational facility policies. Most importantly, the report provides conclusive evidence that “neighborhood schools” are more beneficial than the alternative for both the students and the community.


The “greenest” building is the one already built. Renovation of existing buildings can be considered one of the single most important contributors towards sustainable architecture and building design. Every building has something called “embodied energy”, which is the total amount of energy used to produce the materials and construct the structure. The embodied energy unit of measurement, the British Thermal Unit (BTU), is not very telling, but it can be converted into a more understandable format; like number of recycled aluminum cans, gallons of gasoline or barrels of oil.

The amount of embodied energy within an existing 100,000 sq./ft. school, the energy used for the demolition of the existing school and the energy used to construct a new equally sized facility would be equivalent to the misuse of one or a combination of the following items:

- 2,427,826 gallons of gasoline

- 224,476,800,000 recycled aluminum cans

- 34,900,000 barrels of oil

* environmental costs were calculated at TheGreenestBuilding and are only estimates

Given the chance to utilize existing buildings is about doing what’s right for our communities, our children and their future. It’s part of what students are being taught in school everyday, for them, it has become a way of life.

“The truth is that in numerous cases, older school buildings can be renovated to 21st century standards with everything we’d expect in a new school.”

- Royce Yeater, school facilities architect and head of the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Midwest office

The Pennsylvania Department of Education in cooperation with the Pennsylvania School Boards Association and the Pennsylvania chapter of the American Institute of Architects has put out a 28-page brochure outlining the benefits of saving historic school buildings.

Lest anyone think that re-using historic school buildings might not qualify under Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED), I direct your attention to this example in Lansing, Michigan where you may learn about the 1928 building that is the world's first to achieve "double platinum". 

So what is the point of my article today?  That IF the Swanton community wants to save and re-use its historic school buildings, it can be done - but you cannot assume it will be done.  Those to whom this is important need to speak up and let the school district know their opinion on the matter.  I have never heard of a community anywhere in the USA that has torn down an historic structure and then felt "good" about it afterwards.  Never.  But it takes vision and work to make it happen.

I just pray that Swanton is not one of those places that allows their iconic structure to be bulldozed down and then regrets it forever afterwards.

No comments: