How to bring historic buildings new life and purpose

Renovation and rehabilitation of buildings have taken on even greater relevance given the COVID-19 pandemic as colleges and universities respond to new requirements and needs. Here are three actions for campus leaders to consider when considering renovations to historic buildings.
By: | June 22, 2020
A site investigation at Washington and Lee University’s Newcomb Hall revealed trusses and a light well hidden beneath the building’s cupola. They had been covered by ductwork and dropped ceilings. The renovation design incorporated the features, adding natural light and character to the building.A site investigation at Washington and Lee University’s Newcomb Hall revealed trusses and a light well hidden beneath the building’s cupola. They had been covered by ductwork and dropped ceilings. The renovation design incorporated the features, adding natural light and character to the building.

Colleges and universities across the country face a number of complex campus challenges, including limited resources, aging facilities, and scarce land for new construction. Likewise, as the need for space evolves on campus—even before COVID-19—the original intent of historic structures may no longer work for a modern university. In fact, historic buildings are often subject to years of patch repairs and random “remuddling” as needs arise. They can end up becoming inefficient, incohesive and uninspiring. So, the question for university officials is this: What should we do with historic buildings, especially those that seem to have outlasted their use?

Thoughtful historic rehabilitation offers a cost-effective option to bring new life and purpose to historic buildings on campus. Renovation and rehabilitation of buildings, those that technically qualify as historic as well as those that don’t, have taken on even greater relevance given the COVID-19 pandemic. Universities are responding to new requirements and needs. Renovation is an increasingly appealing option because it allows a school to adapt buildings in a much quicker and less costly manner then new construction.

There are a number of additional factors that campus officials must weigh when considering a renovation project compared to a new building. Among those factors is that renovation of a historic building preserves existing character that can’t be replicated by new construction. The decision to renovate rather than build new in a different location may also benefit from maintaining a presence in the historic campus core.

Susan Reed, AIA, Glavé & Holmes Architecture

Susan Reed, AIA, Glavé & Holmes Architecture

Furthermore, reusing a historic building is inherently sustainable and can even attain LEED certification. Historic Rehabilitation Tax Credits may also be available to help offset the rehabilitation costs, which could be another factor in deciding to build new or renovate. A final consideration is whether building new is truly needed to achieve desired programming and technology goals. It’s possible to integrate contemporary uses into a historic setting.

As university officials consider renovations to historic buildings, following these three actions can help guide a successful project.

1. Conduct a robust and early site investigation.

An initial site investigation is critical with any historic rehabilitation. Take time to initiate detailed site reviews, analyze historic documents and building plans, perform laser scans (if feasible), and conduct selective demolition probes and testing of the current structure. These activities all inform decisions about a rehabilitation’s design and priorities while also ensuring you have the most accurate drawings of the building in its current state.

Even if drawings of the building exist, conduct this independent due diligence. Sometimes buildings were not constructed in exact accordance with the drawings or later alterations were not documented. The information gathered in this phase will help you avoid costly surprises and identify potential pitfalls early. Plus, you could discover incredible features you didn’t even know were there.

A robust site investigation at Newcomb Hall, a ca. 1882 building on the campus of Washington & Lee University in Lexington, VA, revealed stunning trusses and a light well hidden beneath the building’s cupola that were covered by ductwork and dropped ceilings. These elements, once found, became key parts of the renovation design. These unique original features now create dynamic moments in spaces filled with natural light and character that have become among the most popular study spots on campus.

2. Consider carefully every piece of the planning process.

Planning matters with every project, but especially so with historic rehabilitations. Think about the modern amenities you’ll need and the infrastructure to support them. Whether lighting, outlets, projectors, sprinklers, or HVAC ductwork, consider early on how these features will be integrated into the design. Avoid the impulse to rely on dropped ceilings and surface applied conduit. Explore other options, such as:

  • using existing basement and attic spaces, or closets
  • adding integrated soffits
  • hiding wiring behind moldings

Think both vertically and laterally, and don’t forget to collaborate with MEP consultants early to understand the scale of these mechanical, electrical, and plumbing systems.

This is the time to discover and consider potential challenges and constraints that may be encountered with the existing building. Ask:

  • Are there limitations from a structural grid or load-bearing interior masonry walls?
  • Are there railings or other historic elements that are not up to current code?
  • What accessibility issues are present?

Addressed early, designing workable solutions can be incorporated smoothly into the renovation project.

3. Embrace your character-defining features.

As you’re planning and designing rehabilitations in historic buildings, take a fresh perspective on what’s truly character defining. What features does the building have that sets it apart? Focus on those unique characteristics and design your rehabilitation to highlight them.

For example, Wilson Hall at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, VA was a pinnacle building on campus, but it did not make a statement on the interior. When the building was identified for renovation, university officials understood the potential to transform it. A portion of the second floor was removed to create a two-story entry lobby that added gravitas and accentuated the building’s key historic features without removing anything that couldn’t be reversed. The result is a “wow” statement that evokes awe and is worthy of an iconic campus structure. Don’t view a building’s historic character as an impediment; leverage those characteristics to enhance your vision.

Recognizing the unique circumstances and challenges that historic buildings bring, it’s important to collaborate with architects, engineers and general contractors who have extensive experience with historic building restoration and rehabilitation, particularly on a university campus. Ensure team members have an understanding of the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Rehabilitation and establish your project rehabilitation goals upfront.

Also read: Education construction lag not new to the coronavirus crisis

Given the current health and safety concerns among students, their parents, faculty, staff and administrators, universities are rightly adjusting campus and facility plans. Thoughtful renovation decisions now can create more welcoming and safer campus environments while honoring the past and forging connections across generations by bringing new life to historic structures.

Susan Reed, AIA is director of the Historic Preservation Studio at Glavé & Holmes Architecture in Richmond, VA and specializes in historic rehabilitations on university campuses. She can be contacted at