Q&A: Adaptive Reuse

As prime real estate in urban areas disappears, school districts are looking for creative ways to expand. A growing trend is to adapt abandoned or unused buildings to fit the needs of school districts.
Ehrenkrantz Eckstut & Kuhn Architects of New York City has performed such transformations for several school organizations. School Construction News spoke with Sean O’Donnell, a principal at EE&K and a 15-year veteran of the industry, during a phone interview.
Q: Can you define adaptive use?
A: Sure, there are two tracks you can go down with adaptive reuse. One is converting the use of an existing building into a school.
An example of that would be P.S. 59 in Manhattan. It was a nurses residence and we converted it into an elementary school. The alternative, and maybe a broader definition, would be simply modernizing an existing building for contemporary school use. That might include buildings that were previously used for educational purposes as schools or some similar use.
There are similar challenges, in some ways, to both definitions, and the challenges quite often involve the historic fabric of existing buildings — the insertion of modern systems and the reconfiguration to optimize energy performance. Certainly, pedagogy has changed and we teach differently and use different technologies.
The challenge is always to look at the opportunities, the structural constraints, the floor-to-floor heights and natural lighting. It’s all of these kinds of things that we would look at, whether the building was originally designed as a school or not. Some buildings adapt very readily to these kinds of things but there are more stringent challenges, perhaps, adapting an existing building that wasn’t originally a school.
Q: So some of these projects lend themselves more easily to adaptive reuse for what you’re building them for?
A: Yes, and we’ve been doing a lot of studies in New York, including site-selection studies of various former industrial buildings, old libraries, and even parking structures, for adaptation to schools. Certainly, the challenges in those kinds of urban contexts are the depths of the floor plates and access to natural light.
The deeper the floor plate, the more challenging it becomes because you are far from the exterior wall in a lot of instances, and you may end up with darker spaces if you can’t open up the center of the building. These areas may be darker because they’re for some occupancy that doesn’t necessarily need to be near natural light, i.e. bathrooms, vertical circulation, some labs, things like that.
Q: What are some of the main reasons that colleges, school districts, or communities give you for choosing adaptive reuse over replacement?
A: In some instances, like with some of the schools that we’ve been doing in the Washington, D.C., there’s an established neighborhood school and there’s a very strong community connection to the building. They want to preserve the building because it has long been part of the community and there’s a lot of heritage associated with it.
In other instances, it’s more cost effective because a certain portion of the structure or the foundations, even the exterior shell, is in place already and can be modified readily.
Also, adaptive reuse lends a certain amount of speed, potentially, to the design and construction process so the project can move more quickly. In other jurisdictions, it may be a real estate constraint because there are not a lot of open spaces.
P.S. 59 is a good example of a building that was adapted within a year’s timeframe to accommodate a school so that they could move out of their existing site and allow additional construction on that site to occur.
It comes down to speed, cost, and real estate opportunities and constraints, in addition to the community value that might be placed on an existing building.
Q: Are you seeing a growth overall in this area?
A: For certain types of clients, it is becoming quite commonplace to adapt existing buildings, particularly buildings that are not schools. Charter schools have become very good at this. They are often under greater financial constraints then other sectors of the school market.
I’ve seen very clever adaptations of former retail buildings, supermarkets or former industrial buildings done by charter school clients. Quite often they turn out to be quite interesting environments in many ways because of the previous architecture. Oftentimes, it takes a clever solution to bring in natural light in some of those instances, but it’s been done very successfully.
SCN: How does adaptive reuse work towards sustainability and LEED?
SO: All of our school buildings are pursuing LEED at this point. Using the existing fabric of the buildings readily contributes to sustainability and to LEED, and we try to preserve as much as we can to retain the character of the building. We’ve been scoring relatively well on the LEED system in terms of reuse of existing materials.
There is also a bit of a philosophy, as well, that there is heritage in reused buildings and there is a significant investment in them and that philosophically maintaining these buildings’ livelihood in some ways is worth doing, regardless of the rating system that you are using.
One of the challenges that we’ve had oftentimes is increasing the thermal performance of the buildings. Many times, the exterior wall is not insulated, or the window systems maybe single-paned, and there may be no roof insulation. Gaining greater energy performance is one of the challenges, typically, with reusing these existing buildings, but it’s something that we’ve been able to achieve.
The other challenge that we have with existing buildings with the LEED system is meeting the acoustical criteria, particularly when we’re dealing with a historic building. That problem gets into the interior finishes used, which in these older buildings may be all hard surfaces — wood floors, plaster walls and ceilings, and very reflective surfaces. We’ve had to modify some of the historic finishes to accommodate modern acoustical criteria for educational environments.
Q: What are some of the challenges associated with installing 21st century school technology into these buildings?

In many ways they adapt very readily. The older the school building, to some extent, the easier it adapts.
SCN: Why is that?
SO: Educational technology, for the most part, is not a very intensive space user like mechanical systems can be. But the older buildings are more generous in terms of their space so you have greater floor-to-floor heights and you can run modern systems through them more readily than the late ’50s and ’60s buildings, which are more spacially constrained and more tightly designed.
Q: What are some overall benefits to the community with adaptive reuse?
A: The community gets to see what is quite often a cherished building continue to successfully contribute to society, and in a lot of ways you couldn’t have more important civic buildings than schools. Also, because we’re dealing with older building stocks, quite often the structures are embedded in communities and therefore are more walkable, which makes them more sustainable and contributes to the health and wellness of the community.
There’s a bit of a cultural legacy that a lot of these older buildings have, you might say. In a lot of ways, they continue to contribute by adding their historical architecture to the environment. Many times, the historical architecture is interesting and is pedestrian oriented and has a different scale than you might find in more contemporary aesthetics. There’s a value in preserving that sort of architectural heritage in a community.