You are here


Everything Old is New Again

Here are three notable renovations that can help guide you through your district's current or upcomi

The average public school in America is 42 years old. More than a quarter are over 50 years old, leading the National Education Association to estimate that it will take about $322 billion to modernize U.S. public schools. Why? Deferred maintenance means that across the country roofs are leaking, heating and air conditioning systems are outdated and inadequate, and classrooms can't support new technology. Add to this research that shows children who attend modern, technologically advanced schools are more committed to learning than their peers.

These facts mean districts large and small are contemplating whether to repair their aging schools or start from scratch. The tally these days is about 50-50, with half of the projects getting built from scratch and half renovations, experts say.

Districts choose to renovate for a variety of reasons, but cost and sentiment are cited most often. While building costs differ dramatically in different regions of the country, renovations typically cost about two-thirds the price of building a new school, says Michael Hall, chief marketing officer of Fanning/Howey Associates, one of the largest educational architecture and design firms in the U.S. In addition, school boards and community members often prefer schools to stay put, for nostalgic reasons and because of the central role the buildings often occupy in communities.

And while cost and continuity weigh in favor of renovation, disruptions to the education process during construction can be difficult for students. Research indicates that test scores decrease by several points during remodeling projects as a result of construction distractions, according to the Council of Educational Facility Planners International of Scottsdale, Ariz. Educators who have been through renovation projects are inclined to insist architects and builders be keenly aware of the mission of the institution and embrace a phased approach to construction.

But when renovation, rebuilding or remodeling projects are envisioned, stakeholders can be swayed by location, cost, architecture and other concerns. For school planners, though, the mantra is that the design must fit the educational mission.

"School design is predicated by the educational program," says John G. Willi, an architect and principal at Fanning/Howey. "It's not as much about architecture but providing the resources-whether it's technology or infrastructure-to meet educational needs and challenges."

Ohio-based Fanning/Howey has completed work on 800 schools since 1996. Below are sketches of three recent renovation/addition projects, with insight from the district administrators responsible for them.

Lake Worth High School

They called it the "mole hole," and to hear former principal David Cantley tell it, the four classrooms and a science lab located in a basement classroom area at Lake Worth High School were among the worst in all of Florida.

"Every time it rained the rats would start running, and it would flood," Cantley recalls.

But that was before Palm Beach County, the 15th largest school district in the nation, pumped more than $48 million into three stages of renovations at the 2,900-student high school. Now, the school has a campus with more than a dozen buildings, centered around two historic Mediterranean-style structures that stand out for their clay and ceramic tile walls, and Spanish barrel-tile roofs.

"Architecturally it all blends together to match the 1926 Mediterranean-style buildings," says Raymond Manning, the Fanning/Howey principal in charge of the project.

The project is billed as a renovation, but it included significant new construction. Phase one, completed in late 1998, was an $18.5 million project that included renovating the two historic buildings, building a new three-story cafeteria and classroom building, and installing new water, fire, communications and power infrastructure throughout the campus.

Phase two, completed in July 2001, called for the renovation of three existing classroom buildings. The interior uses of the buildings were changed, in one case an auditorium with a sloping floor was converted to four classrooms with moveable walls. Added to the campus was a new two-story classroom building to house the school's Air Force ROTC and criminal justice magnet programs, along with a home economics laboratory, which includes a commercial kitchen. The school also built a new auditorium and a natatorium to surround an existing Olympic size pool. A new field house and playing fields with seating for 4,000 spectators were also added. The final phase, costing $5 million, is set to be completed in July. It includes a new classroom building with 18 general classrooms.

Cantley believes the most important decision a district can make in a renovation project is in the selection of the building contractor.

"The board needs to screen contractors very closely and get someone who has a willingness to cooperate with the principal in construction," he says. "I've heard of nightmare cases of contractors who come in and want to pretend school doesn't exist while we're here."

Upper St. Clair High School

What do you do when a community strongly believes the best plan is to renovate an existing school, but everything from the heating and cooling systems, classroom designs, auditorium and even the windows are out-of-date or failing?

"We had built [Upper St.Clair High School] quickly, in 1962 out of glass and aluminum. And it looked as if 1,400 kids had occupied that place 24 hours a day for 40 years," says William Pope, superintendent in Upper St. Clair, Pa.

After much debate and community input, the district settled on a renovation project that involved totally revamping 160,000 square feet of space and building a new, two-story, 155,000 square foot addition. The result? A new school that kept the community's traditionalists happy with the location and met the district's educational mission to build a "school of the future."

Upper St. Clair High School is now a commanding architectural presence in the town with three soaring arches, each offering an entrance to a distinct portion of the school. The dominant arch is an entryway to the academic area of the school, which is built around a new, 12,500-square-foot, glass enclosed, circular library. On a balcony overlooking the library is a counseling area. The instructional space in the academic wing now consists of four distinct and identical classroom areas, or neighborhoods, as they are called in school planning parlance.

"We're designing schools for the future to allow different educational programs to be taught in those buildings," says John G. Willi, the principal designer of the Upper St. Clair project and a principal at Fanning/Howey. "Many schools are still in departmental groupings, but we've designed them to go into grade-level groupings, an interdisciplinary approach, by designing houses or neighborhoods."

Upper St. Clair's second arch leads to the arts area, dominated by a professional-caliber, 860-seat theater that is the home of the Pittsburgh Symphony and the River City Brass Band. The stage is equipped with a fly tower that allows sets to be lifted entirely from view; they can also be driven in by a truck. The theater has an orchestra pit, and seats and aisles that accommodate more than just "children whose backsides hadn't grown bigger than their shoulders yet," Pope says.

The third arch offers entrance to the athletic area that includes two gymnasiums. For Fanning/Howey, the steep topography first presented a major challenge on the site. The solution was an innovative design that makes the gym easily accessible via a bridge from an upper-level parking lot. The configuration brought the athletic facilities into compliance with the Americans With Disability Act requirements and allowed administrators to restrict access to portions of the building when it is being used for community events.

"We took aspects of the site that were given and at first seemed to be exceedingly difficult," Willi says. "They ended up creating a much stronger solution, not only to support their educational program but to integrate the old architecture with the new architecture."

Lima City Schools

John McEwan has a lot on his mind these days-the construction or reconstruction of his entire district to be exact.

McEwan, superintendent of the Lima (Ohio) City School District is probably one of the few administrators in the nation with plans to rebuild or renovate nine schools in his district of 5,300 students in less than a decade. Nearly 90 percent of the $104 million budgeted for school construction in Lima over seven years is coming from Ohio's Facilities Commission. This commission uses funds received by the state in the settlement of tobacco lawsuits.

Because most of the money is coming from the state, paying for the new schools is easier for the citizens of Lima but puts stringent restrictions on the process for administrators. Under the rules, if a renovation project costs more than 66 percent of the cost of a new building, a new school must be built. Using this formula, the district is building seven new schools and renovating two.

The two schools being renovated are the newest in the district. They were built as identical middle schools. Now, one is being converted to an arts magnet elementary school as part of the "musical-buildings" game that will allow the district to demolish and rebuild several schools each year.

The nearly $6 million being spent at each of the renovated schools will be "things you don't see," like new heat and air conditioning infrastructure, new wiring, a new fire alarm and sprinkler system, new roof and network technology, says Stephen Wilczynski, the Fanning/Howey architect and principal in charge of the Lima projects. Among the changes students will notice are new floor tiles and carpet, new lights and ceilings, windows and a fresh coat of paint throughout. The district is also buying new furniture and replacing chalk boards with whiteboards throughout the district.

"Essentially we're just keeping the skeletal frame," McEwan says. "This is about as complete a renovation as you can get."

Though rebuilding an entire district in less than a decade seems a monumental task, McEwan has some sanguine advice: "It's not rocket science.

If you look at the total picture you're absolutely going to be overwhelmed. Break it down into doable parts, and empower people to do those parts. Then it becomes manageable."

For McEwan that strategy includes hiring a full-time construction management person within the district along with a construction management firm overseeing the whole project.

"The biggest thing is putting together a team to work through the process of the project," he says. "You need people you're comfortable with who have the expertise to guide you correctly though the process. So much of it is relationships and communication."

Rebecca Sausner,, is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn, N.Y.