Inside Look: Repurposed buildings for higher ed

Adaptive reuse in higher ed blends the old with the new
By: | Issue: November, 2018
October 29, 2018

Architects strive to maintain the historical integrity of structures when repurposing buildings—while ensuring they provide comfort and the modern conveniences students need.

Called “adaptive reuse,” renovating older facilities for different functions often includes reimagining spaces and maximizing natural light.

But most higher ed institutions repurpose buildings because they have no other choice, says Alan Gribble, president of property management at Signet, a private real estate firm that specializes in public-private partnerships.

“Colleges and universities only have so much land, so they have to look to pre-existing facilities when they want to expand.”

Institutions may also pursue adaptive reuse to minimize construction waste, promote sustainability and reduce spending, says Gribble.

Creating open spaces

When adding new technologies, such as smart speakers, schools are now keeping these modern appliances visible rather than hiding them. But they’re simultaneously exposing older parts of the building as well.

“When structures are modernized, architects usually hide original beams with dropped ceilings,” says Gribble. “In adaptive reuse, we’re going back to seeing open layouts with exposed conduits.”

Doing this undoubtedly adds historical context, and can also make buildings more spacious.

“It’s highly desirable to make bigger, more open spaces especially for older buildings that feel closed in,” says Gribble. To accomplish this, the common practice is to maximize natural lighting by installing new windows, though older buildings sometimes can only support skylights.

Institutions usually try to increase floor plans for other projects such as student housing to fit more bedrooms and bathrooms.

Higher ed tends to appreciate facilities projects that involve repurposing rather than starting from scratch.

“There’s a different sense of satisfaction because of what you are able to do,” says Gribble. “Adaptive reuse touches the emotions a little bit more.”


Steven Blackburn is associate editor of UB.