Court’s Adjourned, School’s in Session
- By Warren Gran
- February 1st, 2008
After Brooklyn Family Court adjourned
for the final time, the New York City School Construction Authority (SCA)
acquired the circa-1951 building and initiated conversion of the
140,000-sq.-ft. courthouse into two new learning academies for the Board of
original courthouse earned high scores for its location in the heart of
Brooklyn’s Civic Center and a symmetrical floor plan
around a central core, facilitating its division into two high schools.
However, it lost points because of its 12-ft. floor-to-floor height, the
absence of a space that could easily be converted into an auditorium or
gymnasium, and deed
restrictions that limited the overall height of the building.
These and other challenges were overcome, and construction is
now under way on the $56M project that will be open for the start of the
2008-09 school year as the Urban
Assembly School for Law and Justice and the Urban Assembly of Math and Science
for Young Women.
Adaptive reuse of municipal,
institutional, and commercial buildings as schools is a growing trend in urban
areas across the country where additional classrooms are desperately needed and
there is often little or no land available for new construction. One might
assume that the typical municipal or commercial building of the 1950s-era, with
its basic, straightforward design and simple, symmetrical layout would be more
easily converted to school use than a 1960-70s office building or a late 19th-century
factory or warehouse.
Actually, the architecture of office
buildings from the ’60s and ’70s typically reflected the dreary “9 to 5”
workaday world, but reasonable column spans and high ceilings offer some
flexibility for adaptive reuse. Old warehouses and factories offer high
ceilings, thick exterior walls, high floor loads, and reasonable column spans, plus
Because the typical ’50s building is
very tightly designed and specifically programmed, it often presents the most
challenging puzzle for planners, designers, and administrators tasked with
adapting them for an educational program. This is particularly true in school
districts that have embraced the small-schools movement, where existing
large-volume buildings are being carved into two or more small learning
academies dedicated to specialty curricula such as science, technology,
justice, or performing arts.
A detailed pre-design feasibility study
is essential to the ultimate success of such a project. All too often, owners
considering rehab/reuse are put off by the amount of work, time, and fees
associated with the feasibility study. However, the information gathered during
this planning phase provides the basis for sound design decisions that
contribute to completion of the project on time and within the budget.
School construction officials who are
experienced in renovation projects understand that a feasibility study is a
worthwhile investment — they would rather pay now than pay later in the form of
costly, time-consuming change orders. In this case, the SCA contracted with
Gran Kriegel, the project architects, to determine whether it was feasible to
convert the half-century-old courthouse to meet the educational program. The
study concluded that the project was feasible, but not without its challenges.
Located in Brooklyn’s Civic Center,
a government and transportation hub, the Brooklyn Family Court building was
clad in gray limestone like its neighbors. Typical of an urban school site,
there was no open space on site for outdoor recreation, although there is a
nearby public park. The building was a prime example of post-World War II
institutional design approach, which pushed the limits of “less is more.”
The architecture was clearly driven by
cost and function, with minimal amenities and little sense of style. When one
imagines a courthouse, one expects to find expansive, light-filled public
spaces; yet, due in part to the building’s 12-ft. floor height, it had no
public spaces that were responsive to a user’s emotional or aesthetic
The building’s one saving grace was its
symmetrical plan, with a central core of elevators, fire stairs, and toilet
rooms flanked by two relatively equal building volumes. This is a typical
organizing device for older institutional buildings, including those dating
back to the early 20th and late 19th centuries, because
it was a straightforward, economical design. The organization facilitated a
typical classroom floor plan, allowing for separation into two high schools.
One half of the existing cellar
comprised mechanical and electrical service and a boiler room, while the other
half was used for storage. The service entrance was located in the rear of the
building at cellar level, facilitated by a site that slopes down from front to
Design began with a program identifying
two 500-seat high schools, one of which had been identified as the Urban Assembly
School for Law and Justice, while the
other had yet to be determined. As in the board of education’s other
multiple-school facilities, these two high schools were to share an assembly
space, gymnasium, and dining/kitchen facilities. Architects began to develop a
space plan locating all shared functions on the ground floor and dividing the
building into two schools above. This involved a complete gutting of interiors,
including all systems and windows.
While the initial design phase was
underway, the architects undertook a simultaneous investigation of existing
conditions. Although the elevators were not ADA-compliant, the shafts were
adequate to accommodate larger cars. The building’s limestone cladding required
detailed study, as it appeared to be in poor condition. This was confirmed by
removal and inspection of one panel near the roof that revealed that the
hardware securing the panel to the building’s framework was badly deteriorated.
However, given the weight of the four- by six-ft. limestone panels, it would
have been quite expensive to remove them all for examination. Instead,
nondestructive visual inspection, impulse radar, thermography, and acoustic
sounding were used to evaluate their condition.
New construction projects can be
designed to meet the board of education’s requirement for separation of shared
facilities (gymnasium, auditorium, and cafeteria) from teaching spaces. For
example, Gran Kriegel had recently completed a new school, P.S./I.S. 395,
comprising two 500-seat schools with shared spaces on the ground floor that can
be used by the community after school hours without entering the classroom
Achieving that goal is more difficult
in a renovation project. One of the three design schemes proposed involved
breaking through to the storage side of the cellar to create a two-story
multipurpose room that would be entered from the ground floor. The penthouse
level that had served as the judges’ chambers was to be demolished and replaced
with specialized classrooms, such as science labs and art rooms.
Due to the estimated cost of the
extensive structural changes associated with this design scheme, the SCA
selected an alternative that places the multipurpose room on the penthouse
level. By use of a movable partition, this space can function as a competition
gym, flexible performance space, or simultaneously accommodate two activities.
Clerestory windows and the glazing
beneath the curved trusses bathe the space in daylight, creating a special
space within this otherwise low-ceilinged building. The steel framed, long-span
joist structure is separated from the existing roof by an interstitial space,
which allows for efficient MEP distribution and optimum noise isolation. Clad
in stainless steel, the addition contributes a special exterior identity to
this otherwise severe former courthouse.
It was always a given that the interior
partitions and systems would be gutted and replaced. Architects developed a
donut-like floor plan on classroom floors in each half of the building, placing
classrooms on the exterior walls of the double-loaded corridors and auxiliary
spaces (storage, AV, small seminar rooms, air shafts, electrical closets, janitor
closets, etc.) in the donut “hole,” to bring daylight into all classrooms. Art
rooms were placed near the top floor to enhance natural lighting and
ventilation, while special education classrooms were placed on a lower floor to
facilitate access. Once the second school was identified as the Urban Assembly of Math and
Science for Young Women, architects clustered additional science labs on an
upper floor to provide for a cost-effective system to exhaust fume-hood gases.
In the case of the Urban Assembly
School for Law and
Justice, the design included a wood-paneled mock courtroom, complete with judge’s podium,
witness chair, and jury box. Although general classrooms have an overall
floor-to-ceiling height of nine ft., architects were able to increase the height
of the courtroom space to 10 feet to overall through careful routing of
mechanicals, giving that space more drama.
Elevator shafts have been combined to
accommodate larger, ADA-compliant cars, and programmed to separate access to
the classroom floors of each school. The deteriorated limestone exterior will
be over-clad with an innovative thin-stone façade system and windows replaced
throughout the building. Egress from the multipurpose room has been augmented
with an additional fire stair.
The courthouse’s original red
granite-framed entrance was retained, creating a two-story interior public
space to give the building a stronger presence and more gracious entry
experience. Column covers and other metal trim at the center of the building
are aligned with the rooftop multipurpose room and colored to match the
existing red granite base, reinforcing the relationship between old and new.
New window frames are a complimentary shade of blue, adding a lively event to
the 1950s-era rigidity of the building mass.
Each adaptive reuse project poses
unique challenges and usually presents more than a few surprises. The
conversion of the Brooklyn Family Court building to a new dual high school for
the New York City School Construction Authority was no exception.
The primary requirement for an adaptive
reuse is that there is the right “fit” among the existing conditions, new
program, and budget. Determining the fit includes answering the obvious
planning questions through the schematic design process, as well as the
appropriate analyses of building systems, environmental issues, and zoning and
building codes. Yet performing these analyses reveals only so much, just as
kicking the tires of a used car is only a preliminary to finding out if it
actually runs — the prudent would-be owner still takes the car to a good
mechanic for a thorough examination. Similarly, determining the feasibility of
an adaptive reuse requires a thorough investigation and documentation of the
existing conditions in order to test the relationships among the factors
mentioned above. To reduce the unknowns, owners are well-advised to complete
most of the demolition under a separate contract early in the design process,
even though final demolition documents will still be required as part of
bidding the general construction package. This process is costly, but in the
end it will provide more accurate cost estimates, lower bids, and fewer change
orders. Even so, experienced school construction authorities always expect some
surprises during construction and include a contingency percentage that is
higher than that for a new construction project.
That said, if the owner and design team
begin with a comprehensive feasibility study, maintain realistic expectations,
expect the unexpected, and look beyond the building’s existing constraints, it
is possible to develop a design that works for a new era and dramatically
Warren W. Gran, FAIA, is the founding partner of
Gran Kriegel Associates architects and planners in New York City
. He has worked on varied public
works projects for more than 35 years.