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Timeline of typical lifespan of building components. Images: Lord Aeck Sargent  


Re-use, recycle, renovate or re-build—as architects and planners for higher education and research facilities, we wrestle with these choices time and again. It’s assumed we will design beautiful and functional spaces, as our education and experience have trained us. But before we dive into any architectural design work, an enormous task is before us, which involves understanding, evaluating and a bit of fortune telling, with teams acting as excavator, resource minder and environmental steward.

As we sift through what can be a daunting mix of variables, we survey, analyze, forecast and graph, looking backward and forward to what time has done, and will eventually do again, to these buildings. It’s a winding route, and the pre-design work before us is every bit as complex as the design work which follows.

Often we look to do more with less, and recycling and re-using a building’s components can be the best alternative; but not before asking several key questions. Is this the best use of an institution’s resources? What are the monetary risks involved? Does this support the larger master plan? We look to thorough, yet often subjective, evaluation methods for answers.

Evaluation methods
Perception: Buildings can be loved or unloved or, perhaps, unmaintained, outdated, crowded and/or inefficient. Regardless, we need to see beyond the surface—beyond paint deep—and look to a building’s infrastructure for its potential.

Cost/value: The cost/value ratio can reveal answers about the viability of renovation versus new construction. We must examine whether we gain more value in re-using an existing building versus starting fresh. Frequently, programmatic compromises result when working with an existing building; but if the structure is well-built and on many campuses, historic, it can be more meaningful to renovate, and less expensive. Successfully transforming an existing building is an arduous process and needs inspired thinking—imagining an existing building for what it is now and can be tomorrow, and exploring what changes we can and should make, within the full economic, historical and environmental context.

Recruitment/retention: Academia is competitive, and institutions want to attract the most funding and best talent. If we renovate an existing building, will we transform it enough to be a good recruitment tool? If it’s a building with a great legacy, it can be to your advantage. If not, will it excite people enough to come to it? It takes intense study and creativity to make that transformation successful.

Land use: Is the current land use maximizing the property’s use now and also over the next 20 years? Is the building dense enough to be viable as campus land becomes more valuable? How is the current and projected use tied to the campus master plan?

Logistics/swing space: In creating new or renovated facilities, swing space can become a driving factor. In a phased floor-by-floor renovation, it can be built into the project as you occupy new space. A more comprehensive renovation can cost less when we look at the big picture of longer construction time and economies of scale. The decision to build a replacement building on an existing site could create the need for swing space approaching the size of the new building. The costs and potential disruption during a phased renovation need to be carefully considered.

Existing building structure: In the end, the building’s structural system is the hardest to change significantly, and understanding how appropriate it may be and whether it can effectively adapt to a use change becomes fundamental.

Anticipated lifespan
Looking at an existing building as a set of systems, each with its own lifespan, helps us evaluate its viability. The accompanying chart (above) suggests an estimate for the lifespan of various building systems—understanding that keeping or replacing a particular building component needs to be evaluated in terms of replacement and ongoing operational costs.

Finishes and technology typically require significant repair or replacement in shorter timespans. By contrast, a sound structure and well-built skin can remain serviceable for 50 to 100 years.

While many architects lean toward building new, we also want economical solutions, which can mean renovating under the right circumstances. We need to be cognizant of trends in research technologies, funding challenges and variable construction costs, which all contribute to this complicated bottom line.

It has been said the greenest building is one that’s already built. Existing buildings and many higher-education buildings built for the long-term have significant amounts of embedded energy through their original material and construction. This embodied energy translates directly to carbon in the atmosphere and impacts dollars. Since the embodied energy, and thus carbon, is already “spent”, re-using it can save significant resources, as well as costs. Adding further complication can be the historical value of a building. In some cases, buildings can be beloved historical campus landmarks, or un-loved “white elephants” many wish to raze, if economics didn’t dictate otherwise.


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Univ. of Cincinnati Rieveschl Hall: Main image: Renovated research labs with daylit write-up space beyond. Inset: Typical research labs prior to renovation.  


Research funding
Looking at federal research funding in the U.S., starting in the 1970s, we see a sustained climb until about 2002 and then a decline (if adjusted for inflation). When the Great Recession began, the stimulus packages of 2008/2009 gave engineering research and infrastructure a slight shot in the arm; but adjusted for inflation, federal research funding in the U.S. today has remained essentially flat since 2002. This new reality has caused many institutions to re-think capital projects and make available funds go further to meet their current and future research needs.

There are convincing arguments to start over and build new, but re-use also can seem attractive. When viewed as ugly and unloved, some buildings are challenged to grow past their reputations. Often, it simply takes creative thinking and resources to transform an outdated, unloved building into a viable, positive contributor to an institution’s mission and campus fabric.

Below, we’ll examine three recently completed projects. The first is a floor-by-floor renovation at Univ. of Cincinnati, modernizing a 1968 lab to create a new campus center for teaching and research. The second is Eastern Michigan Univ., an addition/renovation establishing a new front entry, lab, office and collaboration space and a floor-by-floor renovation of the existing structure. The third example is Univ. of North Carolina, which, after years of study, concluded a full-scale renovation of the Mary Ellen Jones building as a single project was the best solution; so renovating the entire interior and replacing the building skin resulted.

Rieveschl Hall, Univ. of Cincinnati
Funded with four capital plans, this Univ. of Cincinnati eight-story building project consisted of multiple renovation phases implemented over time and funding cycles. Our firm’s role began with Phase 4, the renovation of the Dept. of Biology’s sixth and seventh floors, with additional mechanical support. This 42,000-sf renovation housed teaching and research labs, offices and conference space. Phase 5 brought 52,000 sf of renovations for chemistry and biology research labs, offices and conference space. This project was completed in collaboration with GBBN Architects.

With minimal land available for additions or new construction on this dense campus, the proposed programs argued for renovation. While dated, the structure, with strong bones intact and large structural spans—plus 16-ft floor-to-floor heights—was ideal to renovate.

Lab teaching shifted to smaller class sizes with more flexible systems, affording collaborative work and hands-on, problem-based learning. These new open, adaptable labs offered flexibility for ever-changing research and researchers.

The renovation required replacement and upgrades to the entire system’s infrastructure serving the two floors, including a new, more efficient variable air volume HVAC system, new plumbing and electrical distribution and a new fire protection system. With our client focused on the long-term view, many of the MEP/FP systems were designed to accommodate potential future phases and changes.


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Eastern Michigan Univ.’s Mark Jefferson Science Center: Main image: Photo of addition creating new front door showing planetarium floating in the lobby. Inset: Photo of building prior to renovation and addition.  


Mark Jefferson Science Complex, Eastern Michigan Univ.
Funded by the university through the sale of bonds and a 4% tuition increase earmarked for capital projects, this complex, four-phased project at Eastern Michigan Univ. included an 81,000-sf addition in Phase I to the Mark Jefferson Science Building. Phase 2 renovated 140,000 sf of the existing building constructed in 1969 that was in dire need of refurbishment. The final two phases involved assorted 43,000 sf of renovations, including an animal suite.

During programming, existing facilities were reviewed and evaluated for their frequency of use and department affiliation to determine optimized adjacencies and space-use match. A phasing strategy for renovations to occur with minimal departmental disruption followed. The Phase 1 addition, creating swing space, now houses the biology, chemistry, geography and geology, physics and astronomy and psychology departments. Included are 36 labs on the first two floors, with faculty offices on the third, fourth and fifth floors.

In designing the site and new addition’s exterior envelope, special attention was given to sustainability strategies for stormwater management, including green-planted roofs, sunshading, daylighting and a chilled beam HVAC system. Masking the west face of this heavy, ’60s-era brick and stone trim building, the lighter, transparent new addition is connected by a series of walkways to the existing building via a shared corridor running parallel to its entire length, creating a seamless connection to the existing building. A previously enclosed fire stair was opened to introduce an open, welcoming visible connection between the new and old. The addition continues beyond to the north, where it also joins with EMU’s Strong Hall, another science building.

The building’s collaborative atrium space puts its science on display, literally from the top down and offers a five-story view from the ground floor up to a suspended spherical planetarium/classroom.

The new front door to the Mark Jefferson Science Complex now serves as a symbolic front door to the campus, and is entered across a sculptural suspension bridge from the nearby parking.

Mary Ellen Jones Research Building, Univ. of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
The 228,000-sf Mary Ellen Jones Research Building is experiencing a comprehensive renovation. Our firm began creating the renovation master plan, originally envisioning an incremental phased approach for the building’s full renovation. Though structurally sound, the building needed major systems upgrades. And being on a busy medical center campus with little room for expansion required a transformative renovation.

Over the years, multiple small projects enabled research to continue, despite the building’s core deficiencies restricting its full utilization. Major impediments to creating an attractive, modern lab environment included: recirculating air systems in the labs; inefficient floor plans with labs and support labs separated by public corridors; window sills at 4 ft 6 in, limiting views and natural light; exhaust fans and other equipment at the end of its useful life; and an unbalanced air system bringing vivarium odors to public spaces.


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Univ. of North Carolina Chapel Hill: Main image: Rendering of new exterior of Mary Ellen Jones Building. Inset: Photo of existing building prior to renovation.  


In addition, the school of medicine’s campus evolved so the building’s main entry faced away from the primary pedestrian corridor. The less-attractive back door by the loading dock had, in effect, become the everyday entrance—not ideal for recruiting to this modern medical school.

Funding changes brought new campus lab buildings, which brought enough swing space 17for a complete renovation. Due to concerns that a phased renovation could compromise ongoing research—particularly with noise and vibration sensitivities for animal housing—a better, cost-effective plan was developed to renovate the entire building as a single project. This approach afforded complete lab floor reconfigurations into modern, efficient research labs integrated with support spaces, increasing the assignable area by 3,000 sf per floor. What was once less than optimal circulation will now be incorporated into a flexible open lab environment. Public areas will be improved by opening up lobbies for collaborative meeting space, and a new plaza will re-connect the building back to the campus pedestrian “spine”.

The evolving design also recommended complete replacement of the building’s exterior precast envelope and glazing, along with all of its systems, bringing attractive changes for the building’s look and function.

Construction documents for the 11-story renovation and plaza are underway and construction is slated to begin in October 2015.

In this day and age, there’s an economic and sustainable imperative to continue to find ways to do more with less, but without compromising an institution’s research or other priorities. We’ve wrestled with swing space solutions, re-skinning a building, floor-by-floor renovations, creating a new building from an old one and many other possible permutations to make an existing facility come alive again. Have we figured it all out, found the perfect calculation and learned to better foresee the direction we will take each time? No, not exactly. But we have opened doors and made discoveries, assessed our client’s resources—financial and otherwise—and armed with better information, we have shaped new solutions from old to meet our clients’ needs for today and beyond. The truth is, these conclusions take time and require commitment from the design team and the institution. They result from scores of discoveries, conversations, computations and analyses, each presenting a unique set of circumstances and requiring a customized process and solution.

For over 15 years, Joshua Gassman has lead large, multi-faceted design teams focused on sustainable design. He has managed a broad spectrum of projects, ranging from large research labs to interpretative and education centers.