UB op-ed: Remodel, restore or raze? Evaluating midcentury campus buildings

Matt Broderick is president of Ashley McGraw, an architecture firm in Syracuse, New York.

According to a recent report by Sightlines, a specialist in higher-ed facilities intelligence, almost 40 percent of university structures currently in use were constructed between 1960 and 1975. As these midcentury buildings enter their fifth decade of service, school administrators and facility planners are facing a critical decision about what to do with them.

Should they be completely replaced, restored, or renovated? Though some buildings from this era have historic or aesthetic significant, many others are at best bland background buildings and at worst cold, negative edifices out of place or time with the larger campus context and at odds with venerable ivy-covered halls of learning. Now, though, new thinking about their promise and potential is beginning to take hold.

In deciding what course to take with these buildings, facility managers and university architects confront several issues, including historic significance. While relatively few schools can boast of being home to masterworks by Mies Van Der Rohe (IIT), Paul Rudolph (Yale), and Marcel Breuer (Bronx Community College), there are many midcentury classroom and administrative buildings that have sufficient artistic value to make them worthy candidates for restoration rather than remodeling.

Next, consider how does the building fit into the campus plan: Does it engage in a “dialogue” with other buildings on a quad, act as a public gateway, or anchor an important vista? Or is the structure an outlier—in style or location—and could be substantially redesigned without impacting the integrity of the campus context?

A third point for discussion centers on to what degree the construction work will take the building offline, and how that would impact students and educators. If surge space is not available to allow the emptying of the building, thoughtful phasing approaches could allow partial occupancy throughout construction.

The good and the bad

Buildings of this era offer a multitude of both pros and cons to their owners and architects. On the plus side, they have simple, orderly floor plans that can be easily adapted to support the evolving pedagogy of today. Their exteriors, comprising strong orthogonal forms and proportions, present an accommodating blank canvas that can form the basis of a new identity that supports the school’s image. Consideration of embodied energy and resources that went into the initial construction can make a more compelling case for reuse than rebuild from a sustainability standpoint.

Drawbacks include a reliance on materials and technologies that were novel at the time of construction, but have not aged well over the years. This can compromise not only a building’s structural integrity, but also its environmental and performance profiles. Some of these problems include failing fenestration systems, deteriorating masonry, hazardous substances (including asbestos), and inadequate insulation. Where preservation over renovation is the preferred direction, sourcing and matching compatible or improved materials that comply with the original language of the building requires closer coordination with local historic preservation officials. Should the materiality and configuration of existing facades have historical significance, improvement of the building envelope from the interior may bear consideration, posing further challenges to air-tightness, insulation, and spatial configuration.

In light of these diverse factors, there is no single solution to modernizing these structures. Because these projects often are subject to the concerns of a spectrum of stakeholders, we have found it a best practice to present clients with a menu of design choices. It’s a pathway, rather than a strict prescription, to reaching a practical decision on how to bring these buildings into the present.

Expedient and aesthetic

At Binghamton University, our challenge was to transform an energy-intensive, visually mundane, 77,000-square-foot 1973 classroom building into an efficient, integrated, and welcoming element of the college campus.

While respecting the overall form and composition of the existing structure, we explored options for a facade treatment that would provide a new, welcoming aesthetic direction for the building complex. Having considered terra cotta and brick, we settled on a new metal rainscreen system that allowed us to economically introduce fresh materials, colors, and textures to the exterior. Now, the Science IV building is an animated composition that’s in sync with the surrounding structures.

The building also had a dismal energy record, particularly in efficiency and thermal comfort. To remedy this, we undertook a deep energy retrofit: original windows were replaced with dual-pane, thermally-broken units, a blanket of insulation wrapping the exterior proved the optimal solution for improving the thermal performance and air-tightness of a historically-leaky exposed concrete faÁ§ade, and the metal rainscreen system protects and refreshes the exterior.

Rebuilding the past for the future

By renovating the interiors of these facilities to make vibrant new academic environments, and transforming the building envelopes and mechanical systems to significantly reduce operating costs, revitalized midcentury academic buildings can play a positive role in campus life for decades to come.

Matt Broderick is president of Ashley McGraw, an architecture firm in Syracuse, New York, that counts Binghamton University, Cornell University, Colgate University, Syracuse University and several SUNY campuses among its clients.

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