Renovate or rebuild higher ed facilities?

Key considerations for creating up-to-date campus facilities

When academic institutions consider upgrades to student residence halls, campus leaders have many options.

Ultimately, one overarching question challenges campuses across the country: Is it more efficient to renovate the existing building or to build a new one?

The answer is different for every campus, but some fundamental issues serve as tipping points for decision-making.

Checklist for decisions

To renovate efficiently, first seek to understand existing building conditions. For the Residence Tower at Towson University in Maryland, floor plan analyses supported renovation. However, several issues needed to be studied further to decide whether to renovate or build new.

  • Floor plans. For residence halls, in particular, you must consider the floor plan. Today’s students seek smaller, clearly delineated communities with shared amenities.The Residence Tower was outdated and had higher energy costs than any other building on campus, yet it featured robust concrete construction and a workable floor plan that would appeal to today’s students.
  • Mechanical systems. Addressing inefficient HVAC systems presents another critical consideration for renovations.For the Residence Tower, the team had to find routing locations for ductwork. The team chose a ductless system that provided enhanced controls and efficiency.An outdated elevator shaft provided new electrical and mechanical space on each floor. Also, changing the building’s envelope and adding insulation provided additional benefits, such as greater climate control.
  • Exterior envelope. The glazing on old buildings can be a source of air and water infiltration. Adding high-efficiency windows reduces water damage and unwanted air infiltration. Many older buildings lack sufficient insulation, leading to reduced energy efficiency and moisture problems.An exterior building wrap and rain screen system were added to the Residence Tower to mitigate these issues. Lightweight, insulated vertical panels were placed on a structural frame that protects the exterior.The frame and rain screen add a new aesthetic, while tying into the colors of newer buildings on campus.
  • Vertical circulation. Other common challenges for outdated buildings include elevators and ADA compliance. Replacing elevators is no small task and can be a make-or-break decision for renovation.The Residence Tower’s elevators did not meet current standards or ADA requirements, so a new, larger elevator and shaft were added adjacent to the existing elevators.
  • Structural renovations. Tackling the low ceiling heights in an old building may require removing structural floor slabs and making other modifications. It is important to build this work into the budget.The Residence Tower had cast-in-place concrete slabs and walls. The slab heights varied up to 5 inches per floor and would have resulted in windows of different sizes, causing costs to skyrocket. The solution was to create a slab edge cover to conceal variations.The project designers reinforced columns to enhance structural integrity. This allowed for the selective removal of slabs on the second level and for dramatic, two-story volume spaces without compromising structural integrity.

Campus vision

In the end, no campus building is an island. The building’s role, efficiency, infrastructure, significance and location are key factors in determining whether renovation or new construction jells with the school’s master plan and overall goals.

Design teams should consider whether the renovation fits with the university’s vision for the campus.

Will it accommodate projected enrollments? Does the location make sense with regard to other campus uses? Can a renovation project be completed in phases or in a cost-effective manner to meet current and future demand?

Communicating and articulating the university’s mission and brand through a cohesive visual language—while meeting the market demands of today’s prospective students—all factor into the decision to renovate or rebuild.

Tom Zeigenfuss is principal with the Maryland-based Design Collective and can be reached at [email protected].

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