Renovate or build new? What colleges can gain from saving legacy buildings

The charm might seem gone from historic campus structures, but preserving them can have its advantages.

That 100-year-old academic hall centrally located on your campus is not aging well. Maybe it lacks modern features or finishes. Maybe it lacks proper accessibility. Maybe everything about it is just old. Conversations begin with other stakeholders, and there are two options: renovate it or knock it down and start over. So which is right?

Kyle Kernozek, associate principal at Perkins Eastman firm BLT Architects (BLTa) in Philadelphia, says that depends on a lot of factors, including perceived value of the building and financial considerations. But not trying to save it might be a mistake. Because having the vision to look beyond a few loose bricks and old carpeting may reveal some hidden gems – like big-plank hardwood floors, exquisite moldings or unique touches that capture the history of the space. Level it and those memories are gone forever. And it might be cost-prohibitive to start from scratch even if a lot of problems exist.

“New construction right now in higher education, you’re spending easily $450 a square foot for a run-of-the-mill building,” Kernozek says. “One of the tricky things is, inside these old buildings is lead paint, layers and layers of asbestos. You can find mercury. But even a full-gut renovation, you’re spending $250-300 a square foot. There’s almost a list of values and discussions that has to happen. One of the first things we do when we start getting into these spaces is looking for that found history or past elements, something we wouldn’t do nowadays.”

Designers, campus architects, facilities leaders and other administrators all work to come up with the best solution. Sometimes, it makes no sense to preserve it. “In new construction, you can control everything,” Kernozek says. “In an existing building, you’re reacting to the building. If you fight the building and try to force an idea, you’re going pay for it.”

Usually though, if a building is that valuable to an institution, there can be workarounds, even when it comes to complex situations such as mechanical upgrades and shifting entrance points. To learn more about maintaining these legacy buildings, University Business sat down with Kernozek to discuss their benefits and potential pitfalls:

What are some examples you’ve seen of the value gained by preserving historic buildings?

Many of the Penn State projects I’ve worked on are 1920s buildings, where people have been going for years. The Penn State Borland Building was for the food sciences division, and it had the original creamery (now housed in the Erickson Center). Everyone has a lot of fond memories, so there’s a lot of cultural history. One of the relics we found was what used to be a loading dock. We cleaned it up, and that was the main accessible entry. It’s gorgeous. You come into that entrance, walk down on the 1927 glazed brick, and halfway down the corridor. There’s the original window that the creamery workers got paid through, and it’s incorporated into a classroom.  Even beyond social things, people reminisce about having a class in this building. At PennVet (veterinary school), they have the original auditorium (built in 1912). One of the administrators once told me that every Penn vet sat in this room.

What about others that have needed a lot of work?

You have to assess what kind of condition the building is in. When Penn State evaluated (what would become the new Erickson building) it was so old and so run down that the amount of money to save it was enormous compared to the value. The mechanical systems were old, and there wasn’t a lot of cultural value. The determination was this building needs to come down. If we deem that we want to (save it), it has to have value to our campus. If so, do we do it all at once or does the building has to be renovated in phases?

Photo courtesy of BLT Architects

Renovating old buildings come with challenges. How are supply chain issues and labor shortages affecting design and construction?

We talk about it every week. I’m working on a project at the University of Delaware. We’re doing deferred maintenance upgrades to the building. Air handling units need to be replaced, but supply chain issues have hurt us, mainly electrical. It really comes down to the institution and how financially resilient they are. We’ve had to pull back work because either it’s so expensive or there’s an electrical switchboard that needs to be replaced and it’s a year out. It’s affecting all the schedules and pushing off opening dates. Another issue is labor shortage. Our construction workforce is getting older. For every four contractors that are retiring, we’re getting one person in. Campus architects also tend to be more transitory. So you’re slowly losing that history and knowledge of the campus. You could have a facilities guy who’s been there for 20-30 years fixing that building, and he can give you a long history of what’s wrong with it. ‘The pipes are leaking. I’ve got a storm pipe that keeps cracking.’

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In terms of revamping older buildings, what are some of the things to look for beyond cosmetic fixes?

We have buildings that have plaster ceilings. Typically, you remove them and put in new drywall ceilings. It looks the same, though you may have lowered it down by 12 inches to cover ductwork, conduits and piping. The biggest thing is what’s wrong with the building? A 100-year-old building, most likely your windows are single-pane, you’re just pouring out heat and cold. To make it sustainable, the first easy change is putting in modern windows. The big question is the makeup of your exterior wall. You need to evaluate whether you can add insulation to it. Most buildings, the exterior walls were designed to take on water and then use heat inside the building to dry them out. How can we avoid a situation where we’re so well insulated that the wall gets wet and never dries out. Then winter comes and you have ice inside it. If you walk by an old wall where the face of the bricks was popping off, that wall can’t breathe.

It’s about lowering how much energy the building takes to operate. The roof is one of the easier fixes. We can easily add four to five inches of spray-on insulation. And you’re starting to reduce the amount of heat and energy this building takes to cool. One of the things we know is sustainability occurs just in the renovation process. A lot of modern buildings are built, knocked down and built again within that timeframe. So we’ve saved all that construction, waste, travel, trucking materials, diesel generators on site. All of that is saved by keeping these buildings in use. There’s a cost savings, and you’re getting all the benefit of a comfortable space, maintaining social and cultural history of your campus. So there’s a lot of good reasons to do this.

Photo courtesy of BLT Architects

What about lighting?

Lighting is an interesting challenge. A lot of new buildings, there’s so much glass and light pouring in. Older buildings, natural light is much more limited. LEDs have been a true boon to sustainability. Especially with uplights and downlighting, that also gives us the ability to accent some of the cool features like our ceiling, where you can highlight it with a soft glow and bring some attention to it.

What considerations should be made for accessibility?

Lots of these 1920s buildings have multiple entrances. The main entrance is up a long flight of stone and granite stairs. There’s no good way to renovate it to be accessible. So what do you do? It’s a cultural shift. The grand staircase stays, but you reposition other entrances to be the main entrance. This is more of a ceremonial, once-a-year, everyone-lined-up-in-front-for-a-photo, and that’s about it. We’re going to renovate the (side entrances) and make them brighter and lighter. The new doors going in will be glass to draw your attention. Then everyone has equal access.

One of our recent projects was for Veterans Affairs at Penn State. We learned a lot about all the other types of issues people have, whether it be vision impairment or lost depth perception. How do you set up hallways and textures for people who may have some vision and have a walking cane, but are mobile and can move around? This floor is my public area, and it’s gonna be a soft floor. So if somebody’s walking around, they know that they’ve transitioned from a space, even if they don’t have good vision. One of the main things with a lot of hospitality right now is lit-up reception desks. There are people with vision issues and that type of lighting causes them severe migraines. So we have to be careful of how we handle this kind of lighting. We still want some accent lighting, but how do we do that in a way where we don’t unduly affect a user? And then lastly, is hearing. Your acoustician is your friend. A lot of old buildings have hard surfaces. How do we give some softness or relief to where acoustics go, making sure you have acoustical ceiling tiles up there and wall paneling for sound absorption.

Chris Burt
Chris Burt
Chris is a reporter and associate editor for University Business and District Administration magazines, covering the entirety of higher education and K-12 schools. Prior to coming to LRP, Chris had a distinguished career as a multifaceted editor, designer and reporter for some of the top newspapers and media outlets in the country, including the Palm Beach Post, Sun-Sentinel, Albany Times-Union and The Boston Globe. He is a graduate of Northeastern University.

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