Sustainable Schools

Designing for a Long Life

When we say a building has good bones, our thoughts rarely turn toward green design. Yet the issue of a building’s longevity is directly tied to its sustainability. The longer a school lasts — both through physical durability and functionality relevance — the fewer resources we must consume via new construction. During planning and design, there are many strategies owners and architects can apply to increase the life of a building.

Provide Room to Change

Think for a moment about that venerable candidate for rehabilitation, the warehouse. Across the country, warehouses have become schools, office complexes, community centers and mixeduse housing. The primary reason is the simplicity of the building structure. The regular column grid and high floor-to-floor height of a warehouse allows the environment to easily change based on the needs of its current occupants.

To create a school that stands the test of time, start by keeping the design simple. The more regular the column grid, the greater potential for change you have in the future. In general, the more “designed” a school building becomes, the shorter its shelf life. Quirky solutions limit future potential. Heavily-customized buildings may be appreciated by the current building users, but underutilized by future occupants. Challenge your design team to create a framework that is agile enough to accommodate some individualization, while also remaining future-friendly.

When designing for a long building life, carefully think through the placement of central services and stairs. These components, more than any other, have the ability to limit future expansion or renovation possibilities. Also, avoid the desire to completely finish out (cover with drywall) all portions of the facility. Access to building services is a key element of an adaptable school. Unfinished spaces give maintenance personnel and future contractors better access to ductwork, electrical, plumbing and roofing systems. They also have the added value of acting as a teaching tool by giving students insight into how a building is put together.

Build to Last

While many people like to talk about 100-year buildings, the reality is that only courthouses and federal buildings are constructed in that manner. Metal studs, blown-in-insulation and high-end residential-style windows are common school building materials. Yet these products have a 15- to 20-year expected life. Investing in durable materials, especially on the exterior, is critical to extending the life of a building. Think of a school as a ring of circles. On the exterior, materials should be chosen to last the life of the school, at least 50 years. As you move into the interior, products and systems have a progressively shorter life: 20 years for mechanical systems and five to 10 years for carpet and VCT tile. By prioritizing where money is spent, owners are able to invest in materials that have the greatest impact on the overall life of the building.

Renovate for Relevance

The ability of a school building to stay relevant is one of the key elements of promoting a long life. Often, the life of a building can be extended through strategic renovations that add flexibility and create an exciting new identity. During a renovation, your goals should be much the same as new construction: create a framework that supports change, provides room to grow and promotes a sense of community identity and pride. Everyone wants to tear down the local eyesore; no one wants to lose the local landmark.

The renovation and expansion of the 1960sera Middletown High School in Middletown, Ohio, is an excellent example of how design can extend building life. The design repurposes the main entry and gymnasium lobby to serve as an open Learning Café. Rather than complicating the existing layout, the renovation opens up the area, allowing the building to change over time. Huddle spaces, collaboration areas and a striking aesthetic makeover give the former corridor/cafeteria a new relevance. Once an area to walk through, the Learning Café is now a major destination on campus.

Our society has a great responsibility to make the best of available resources. As someone once said, “The greenest building is the one that already exists.” By designing for a long life, we can make sure that the schools we build don’t just exist, but thrive, for decades into the future.

This article originally appeared in the March 2016 issue of School Planning & Management.

About the Authors

Steve Herr, AIA, LEED-AP, is director of Design for Fanning Howey, a national leader in the planning and design of learning environments.

John Gladden, AIA, is a principal and project designer in the Dublin, Ohio office of Fanning Howey, a national leader in the planning and design of learning environments.

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