You are here



Districts save cash and time in adaptive reuse of buildings.

Schools teach recycling on many levels today. Students learn the importance of reusing newspapers and plastics in preserving resources and minimizing waste, and they practice recycling each time they place something in the recycling bin. However, some school districts are recycling their own communities' buildings and finding new life for them as schools. Such large-scale recycling has many benefits for communities and their districts.

The most obvious benefit of an adaptive reuse project-one where a building retains its original basic structural elements but is used for a different purpose-is that it takes what might be a community eyesore and transforms it into a much-needed, quality school. And reusing an unused structure saves materials that would have been lost if the unwanted building was demolished and rebuilt for another purpose.

The most obvious benefit is that it takes what might be a community eyesore and transforms it into a much-needed, quality school.

An abandoned building within a community can make a better school site than another site on the outskirts of district lines, since it's easier to transport students to school and many can even walk to school. And placing a school in a central location can preserve neighborhoods and breathe life into an area that may have been deteriorating. The old school buildings those vacated when the new school was created from adaptive reuse of another building can themselves sometimes be reused for other purposes, such as condominiums or art centers.

While not a trend, adaptive reuse is a viable and valuable option for schools, according to Molly Smith, associate vice president of NANA Consulting Services, an educational facilities planning consultant firm based in Mesa, Ariz. "Districts shouldn't be so scared about undertaking these projects," Smith says. "They just need to be sure they have the right experts to help them, make sure the building isn't a fire hazard, and they need to get creative about giving developers of the land a tax credit, like they do in Arizona. A lot of districts just get in the mode of looking for land instead of looking at the resources within their communities."

Districts save cash and time in adaptive reuse of buildings.

Districts control hundreds of millions of dollars, and their decisions can make an impact, Smith notes. Looking for empty buildings could be an answer. "They can be recycling and regenerating and creating energy within their communities with what they do," she adds. "Districts can also be very wasteful by going out and getting a whole new site."

Although most often it's urban districts which typically have no available or sufficient land that undertake adaptive reuse projects, this development provides a great option for new schools. Various retail facilities such as vacant strip malls, "big-box" stores and supermarkets are options, as are office buildings, manufacturing facilities and even U.S. post offices. The building must be structurally sound, properly zoned and in a secure location. Often a building intended for a commercial purpose does not meet the more stringent code requirements of a school, so the building must be renovated in such a way that it meets fire codes and becomes handicapped accessible.

But reusing a building as a school isn't always much less expensive than new construction. The primary advantage of adaptive reuse projects is their time benefits. Reusing buildings can save months of construction time since they don't require demolishing an existing structure and building anew, or clearing land for a building. And for districts seeing a great increase in student enrollment, this can be the biggest benefit of all, Smith says.

However, even though adaptive reuse projects are beneficial, districts and their architects will encounter challenges. For instance, the site location may be far from ideal. An empty retail store might be next to businesses like banks and grocery stores, so the public would be close to school grounds during school hours. It's often a big challenge to maximize daylight in cavernous big-box stores, with natural lighting only around the perimeter. Parts of older buildings may be unusable, extending the time of the project. And it's often a challenge to equip an older building with the necessary wiring to accommodate the computers and other technology that schools need.

"You always find things during the design process that you may not have anticipated," according to David Kriegel, managing partner of New York-based architectural firm Gran Kriegel Associates. "But you can save money on a site with a building already on it. You're saving money because you don't have to demolish the building, and there's also the 'green' aspect. We don't recycle enough in this country, and if we demolish these existing buildings, they would wind up in landfills."

Marc T. Atkinson Middle School and Bret R. Tarver Elementary School

Formerly the Maryvale Mall in Phoenix, Ariz.

In the late 1980S, one of Phoenix's oldest subdivisions, Maryvale, began to suffer the effects of urban sprawl. Businesses moved to more affluent suburbs, and property values plummeted. High crime rates and the number of vacant facilities mounted.

In the early 1990s, Phoenix's Cartwright School District 83, a K8 district, began to see a boom in student enrollment and sought space for new schools. Options were very limited for the land-locked urban district, which needed available, affordable land in a hurry. The district found a solution in a 300,000-square-foot deserted and dilapidated local mall.

Built in 1958, the Maryvale Mall had sat vacant for seven years in the late 1980s and early 1990s. In 1996, developer John F. Long, the original founder of Maryvale, offered the mall to the district for $7.3 million considered a rock-bottom price for the property. The school district acquired the land and building in 1997 and created a central district warehouse to hold district supplies and equipment in the mall's former bowling alley.

The developer, who considered the land donation as a tax write-off , had two special stipulations for the district: The building was to be used and not torn down, and the district had to preserve the building's exterior. The developer had named the mall after his wife, Mary, and didn't want the building's look altered.

Two Schools in One

The district began constructing two schools within the mall in August 1999. The district opened the 111,326-squarefoot Marc T. Atkinson Middle School in the fall of 2000 and opened the 80,845- square-foot Bret R. Tarver Elementary School in the fall of 2001. The total project costs amounted to $15.9 million a bargain price for two large schools, since new schools typically cost millions of dollars more.

The two schools are kept separate with separate entrances, playgrounds and parent drop off /pick up areas. Some facilities are shared between the schools, however. One large kitchen serves two separate cafeterias, and a single media center has two different stack rooms of books.

"The idea is that staff can mingle and integrate from one grade level to another but the students don't mix," says Richard Conrad, the district's assistant superintendent for financial services. That way, staff can share ideas and facilities.

Some of the mall's facilities were ideal for specific district or community uses. For instance, the movie theater became the schools' auditorium. A former skating rink became a gymnasium that can serve two classes at once. And the extensive parking lots were converted into grass-covered playing fields. Also within the mall area are community resources such as a neighborhood health clinic, a police substation and a family resources center that provides adult education.

To deal with renovations at some of its other schools, the district planned a transitional school within the building to accommodate students displaced during their school's renovations. In all, the district used the center for coping with remodels of two middle schools. It then opened the area in 2005 for extra space in the middle school, which now holds sixthgrade classrooms.


The project posed several challenges for the district and architectural team. Because the building had had several renovations and additions over the years, there were inconsistencies in the building structure, including uneven bearing heights and inconsistent slabs. Because the mall had such a huge under-roof area, it was difficult to bring daylight into each classroom. And the structural columns within the building made it difficult to build in classrooms.

The project's architect, Ron Peters, vice president and senior architect at BPLW in Mesa, found solutions. To bring more daylight into classrooms, Peters retained the large skylights that had been built into the mall. He also had to work all the corridors around the columns so they didn't end up with a column in the middle of a classroom.

During construction, the team discovered that the underside of the roof had been covered with lightweight concrete. Water had accumulated underneath the roof, rusting away the steel panels and leaving only concrete decking.

"We had nearly $1.5 million in change orders for roofing, just to replace the materials that had rotted away," Peters explains. "Even so, the district had gotten such a good deal on the shopping center and land that the project wasn't as expensive as new schools would've been."

Keeping the elementary and middle schools and their students separated, as is required, while still under one roof was a design challenge for the architect. The design team was also challenged with creating separate entrances and looks for each of the two schools.

Conrad believes that having two different- level schools under one roof is not an issue. "It's a very large space, and everything has been kept very separate," he explains. "For the most part, there's not a lot of connection between the two schools."

Useful Perks

But the new entrance for the elementary school was noteworthy, featuring functional design elements done with comparably low-cost materials. For instance, the elementary entry has been designed as a streetscape with artwork to depict famous structures such as New York's Empire State and Chrysler buildings, which become a teaching tool for lessons covering cities and architecture. The entryway's floor has a tile design that depicts a streetscape so that police officers can train students on bicycle safety during school hours. The architect also created colorful floor patterns to brighten the area.

Today, Tarver Elementary has 759 students and Atkinson Middle School has 1401 students. The schools' development has spawned a great deal of community revitalization in the area.

A library and community center opened in the adjacent Maryvale Park, and several developers are either renovating other vacant retail centers or building new apartments in the area.

Laurel Park Elementary School

Formerly the Bespak Manufacturing Building in Cary, N.C.

In Wake County, N.C., where K12 student enrollment increases are far surpassing projections, district officials are scrambling to build as many schools as quickly as possible. And district administrators have gotten very creative in their site-seeking.

According to Christina Lighthall, senior director of long-range planning for the Wake County Public School System in Raleigh, the district is taking on 7,000 to 8,000 new students a year, due to a massive influx of people moving to the area, flagged as one of the most desirable places in the United States to live.

The district has 128,072 children enrolled. Next year the district anticipates 136,086 students. But the district has a bond program for new schools that supports only 3,500 new students a year. "Our district has 11,000 more students now than we had been building and planning for just three years ago," Lighthall says. "We can't build schools fast enough."

So Wake County has turned to various vacant buildings for adaptive reuse. The first district reuse project was Lufkin Middle School in Apex, which opened in 1998. The 144,000-square-foot school was built from a former manufacturing facility of the American Sterilizer Company in an industrial area. It took 10 months between the time the district acquired the building to the opening of the school.

The district is now working on two additional adaptive reuse school projects. The first, for ninth-graders, is inside a former Winn-Dixie supermarket in Wakefield. The second is Laurel Park Elementary School in the town of Cary, which is being built in a former Bespak Manufacturing building, a medical products manufacturing facility, on a 16-acre site. The school, which is scheduled to open as a year-round school in fall 2008, is estimated to cost $18.5 million, with $2.7 million for building and site acquisition and $15.8 million for construction.

The district performs a cost-analysis evaluation of each purchase of an existing versus a new building, and there's not always substantial cost savings in reusing buildings, Lighthall explains. "It's always a priority to save money if you can, but what you really save is time," she says. "Time can be a big benefit in adaptive reuse, and we've realized that with many of our projects."

Lighthall believes that communities look favorably upon reusing buildings in part because it is environmentally sound. "When you have a manufacturing facility that's been sitting vacant for a while, trying to be sold and brought back into the community as a viable part of that area, it speaks kudos for you as a school system to make use of the resource that's already there," Lighthall explains. "The public's perception is that if you reuse facilities, then you're doing something better and more economically efficient than buying raw land and building."

Although not all vacant buildings are appropriate for schools, Lighthall says the Bespak building was "like a hand and glove fit." What makes the Bespak facility appropriate, according to Larry Sherrill, the district's facility planner, is the building's location within Cary. It sits on a 16- acre portion of a tract of land owned by a developer who is also building houses on the site. Sherrill explains that the developer was going to tear down the building and build even more houses. "We came to the agreement that we would buy the part of the site with this building and convert it to a school," Sherrill notes. "It was a good situation for the developer to have a school right next to his houses so children could attend school in their neighborhood, and it worked out for us as well."

"Districts shouldn't be so scared about undertaking these projects."-Molly Smith, associate vice president, NANA Consulting Services, Mesa, Ariz

Donna Ward Francis, principal with PBC+L Architecture and architect for Laurel Park Elementary School, which is a brand new school, notes that the building will have 47 teaching spaces with core facilities large enough to serve 800 students.

Because it was a medical products manufacturing facility, the structure had stiff "clean room" requirements and came with a highly sophisticated mechanical and electrical system. "We were able to tie onto the existing system, reuse critical pieces of equipment and keep the location points of where utilities entered the building, saving some money," Francis reported.

The interior was gutted, and in order to provide adequate day lighting, the architect is renovating portions of the exterior and adding new windows. Interior classrooms will have windows and will be lit by "borrowed" sunlight from adjacent spaces.

The original building was 77,200 square feet, but the high bay areas can be used for classrooms, making it 110,000 square feet in all. It will be used for the multipurpose and dining rooms. The site will also include play areas and multipurpose ball fields.


One challenge in designing an educational space in this building included working around an existing structure that does not fit a typical classroom layout. "This means that the school will have more uniquely designed spaces rather than typical school spaces," Francis says. For instance, the unusual roof slope and some unique clerestory windows, or higher up windows, on the existing building allow for some unique classrooms on the second floor and in other spaces.

"We were able to do some fun things to meet the challenge of the existing space, such as building bridges and using unique designs for the ceiling," Francis notes. "I think it will be a fun place to go to school, just because it is a little different."

Urban Assembly School for Law and Justice and Urban Assembly of Math and Science for Young Women

Formerly the Family Court House, Brooklyn, N.Y.

It's a fact of life in some of our nation's largest cities that land simply is not available for building new schools. Reusing buildings has become a necessity in New York City, where the Board of Education routinely gets possession of city-owned buildings and turns them into schools.

When the district needs a new school, it typically checks the inventory of city owned properties through the city's Department of Real Property that are underutilized and looking for another use.

One factor in evaluating whether or not a building is suitable for a school has to do with its structural columns. "If a building has columns every 18 feet and our typical classrooms are 28 feet by 26 feet, then no doubt there would be columns in a classroom that might obstruct the line of sight to the teacher," says Bruce Barrett, vice president of Architecture and Engineering at New York City School Construction Authority. "We often have old hospital buildings that have been given to the city or otherwise made available to us, and many of these buildings have a center large mass and ward wings that are only 40 feet deep or so that don't lend themselves well to schools." New York City has reused several manufacturing and warehouse-type buildings, which provide enough clear space for an efficient school layout.

Among the district's most innovative reuse projects is a conversion of the 50- year-old Family Court House in Brooklyn into two 500-student charter high schools: Urban Assembly School for Law and Justice and Urban Assembly of Math and Science for Young Women. The schools, opened in 2004 and 2006, respectively, are located elsewhere until the renovations are completed and students can enter.

Construction on the $56 million project began in January; the buildings are scheduled to open for the 2009-2010 school year. Together, the two schools will have 142,000 square feet of space on a total of six floors.

The schools will be kept separate, with their own classrooms, laboratories and stairwells. They will have a single entrance, but the schools will be divided vertically, with each school occupying half of the second through fifth floors. The schools will share the cafeteria and gymnasium/multipurpose room that will also serve as the schools' auditorium, with chair storage, theatrical lighting and a moveable stage. The schools also will have a shared music room, library and special education classrooms. Teacher and administrative offices will be in a single suite accessible by students of both schools.

"You always find things during the design process that you may not have anticipated."-David Kriegel, managing partner, Gran Kriegel Associates

The Family Court House is appropriate for conversion for several reasons. First and foremost, it is a public building designed for public use, and to go from court use to school use is a fairly smooth transition, according to Sebastian Crociata, senior officer of architecture and engineering at the New York City School Construction Authority (SCA). "Whenever you talk about adaptive reuse, you're modifying and tweaking as best you can to find that balance between the physical constraints and programmatic needs," Crociata says. "That's the driving force."

In addition, the building had a generous, formal main entrance, a large perimeter area and elevator and stairs at the main entrance, just beyond the main lobby. "It's also easy to find your way around the building, which is very important for any public building," Barrett says.


Kriegel of Gran Kriegel Associates, must take the program requirements, which are consistent in all high school programs, and make them fi t into the existing building. The average New York City school classroom is about 750 square feet and is designed for 34 students. All classrooms have computer workstations built in on one wall, cupboards, a storage closet, a chalkboard and myriad furnishings.

"While it may not be exactly the way it is in our standard room layout, it will contain all of those things that we put into the current up-to-date classroom," Barrett says.

Gran Kriegel has designed several other adaptive reuse projects for school use, including a charter school in the Bronx, which combined a two-story garage and a new four-story structure.

The Family Court House building had no spaces that could be transformed into an auditorium or gymnasium without cost-prohibitive structural modifications. So Gran Kriegel opted to create a tremendous multipurpose room that functions as an auditorium and gym on the roof. However, midway through the design process, the SCA discovered that there were deed restrictions that limited the floor area and that would have prohibited additional floor area being added to the structure. The plans now call for the existing sixth-floor area, which once contained a penthouse with the judges' chambers, to be removed and the new gym to be added.

The ground floor will house the cafeteria and two suites of principal and administrative offices as well as two small conference rooms for parent meetings. The fifth floor has individual art studios, classrooms and science labs. But the school lacks outdoor space, which is typical for high schools throughout the city.

"We've always seen this building as the crown jewel in the center of the downtown Brooklyn civic area."-Sebastian Crociata, senior offi cer of architecture and engineering, NYC School Construction Authority.

The architect is changing the entry, expanding it to two stories to allow light into the lobby area. Gran Kriegel also is replacing the building's windows, adding contrasting colors into the window system to "give the rather static fa?ade a little bit of life." The original structure's deteriorated limestone exterior will be resecured and overclad with a new, thin limestone skin.

And some artifacts from the courthouse will be preserved. For instance, the architect is reusing marble in the lobby and will reinstall two exterior bas-relief stone panels that depict fictional families. They will relocate them to the interior and will move a large mural in the lobby to the library.

As in most districts, schools in New York City are designed to allow some spaces to be used by the community outside of school hours, so architects strive to place suitable spaces such as cafeterias as close to the entrance as possible. In this school, the cafeteria is accessed from the main lobby.

The city is seeing a great benefit to reusing the courthouse. "Obviously, you don't have to do the excavation and put in a foundation or the steel superstructure," Barrett says. "It's not as cost-saving as you might think, but there certainly are some cost savings. It's a good deal for us when we find a building that's suitable."

The newly renovated building will fit in with the neighborhood when it's completed, according to Crociata of New York SCA. "We've always seen this building as the crown jewel in the center of the downtown Brooklyn civic area, which has court houses and a Marriott," Crociata says. "There's so much going on in the area, and to be a part of this cultural environment is very exciting."

Peggy Bresnick Kendler is a freelance writer based in Connecticut