Sustainable Schools

Making Old (Schools) New, Again

Reusing as a means to sustainabilityWithin the past 10 years, the real estate industry has addressed challenging times. The industry peaked at $500 billion in revenue in 2008, and hit a low of less than $350 billion two years later. Budgets simply were not there to fund brand new buildings, even though the need for new space existed. Economic recovery has been slow, but the upside in the lag has helped shape a new facilities trend: the reuse, modernization — and sustainability — of older buildings, particularly schools.

Green concepts are a given with new construction, but retrofitting existing buildings and preserving older buildings is another way of looking at sustainability and caring for the environment. Add this with the fact that older buildings also tend to have more character and unusual characteristics not found in new buildings, and it becomes evident why this trend is catching on.

Other positive outcomes of incorporating sustainable designs into renovations include significant cost savings, since portions of the building are reused. Demolishing an existing building to make room for a brand new facility squanders the “embodied energy” of the existing building, which represents the non-renewable energy spent in the acquisition, processing, and transportation of raw materials used in construction.

The 65,0000-square-foot modernization and renovation and 19,000-square-foot addition project in 2014 of the 1929-built Stoneleigh Elementary School in Baltimore County, Md., is a great example of sustainability through renovation and reuse.

Recognizing that buildings account for 40 percent of energy use, several existing elements were incorporated in the renovation design of Stoneleigh Elementary. These elements provided an opportunity for sustainable reuse that would not have been available in a new facility.

The first was the main entryway, a single, “timid” double door added in the late 1960s. When originally constructed, the school’s entry was through one of two stairways in the front of the building. With input from the Historic Trust, our design created a new entry including a new canopy. The canopy is made of cast stone that duplicates many of the design profiles of the original building’s limestone. The project reuses the existing exterior walls, concrete frame and floors. It also creates a secure, focal point entry that reflects the importance of the school to the community’s history.

The second existing element appeared as a surprise during the condition assessment. When originally built, a two-story multipurpose room with heavy steel trusses and clearstory windows above the roof was the school’s focal point. In the 1960s renovation, a floor was inserted into the multipurpose space creating two floors and also concealing the trusses and windows above the ceiling. In our design process, we exposed the trusses and windows to allow natural light into an interior area and then converted that area into an open-space locker commons.

Surprising to many, electricity use has the largest environmental impact. In the U.S., buildings account for more than 70 percent of electricity use, and most of that energy is generated by coal-fired power plants, according to the U.S. Green Building Council. This is one reason we also looked for ways to save energy by utilizing natural light, lessening the amount of artificial lighting needed. Lowering electrical use can have greater results with the use of more natural light and light sensors.

By carefully considering the option to reuse, assessing the school’s condition and incorporating existing elements in Stoneleigh Elementary’s renovation, the project was successful in meeting the needs of the faculty, school system and community. Its results urged the county to award our firm another similar project: the conversion of an original 1920s-built high school adaptively reused in the mid-1990s to a community center/government building and now modernized into a 21st-century Learning Environment elementary school. This project is currently under construction.

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

About the Author

John DiMenna is a vice president with Rubeling & Associates, a JMT Division, the architecture and interior design group of JMT one of the Mid-Atlantic's leading engineering firms. He can be followed @RubelingAssoc.

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