In June 2000, the National Trust for Historic Preservation added historic neighborhood schools to its annual list of America's 11 Most Endangered Historic Places. Although there has been a surge in renovating school facilities for adaptive reuses such as office space or lofts, thousands of historic schools are in danger of demolition.
Renovating an existing structure may provide the highest and best use in some cases, but often a new facility is mandatory. Not all historic schools are worth saving. But when possible, salvaging a historic school can add to the social fabric of communities and provide opportunities for building on the future while preserving the past.
All old buildings should not be considered assets. However, reusing existing buildings truly is a sustainable concept, and renovating a historic school should be considered before opting to build new.
Replacing a historic building with a more energy-efficient modern structure may sound like an environmentally friendly option, but the opposite may be true. When comparing the embodied energy present in the existing building and the amount of energy expended to demolish a building with the energy consumption of constructing a new building, it becomes apparent that in some cases the most sustainable route may be to maintain the existing structure.
Renovations that are designed with sensitivity can significantly lower energy consumption, as well as reduce building demolition waste, which totals 65 million tons per year according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
If preservation or adaptive reuse of a building is deemed appropriate, the process should begin with an assessment of the existing conditions, which may include the issue of sustainability. Consultants can evaluate a facility and help identify potential cost savings, tradeoffs or synergies. Architects and engineers should consider items such as window replacement or repair, building materials, and heating and cooling systems, which have a tremendous effect on energy efficiency.
The significance of a historic school may go well beyond the brick and mortar; its intrinsic value may be as a celebrated treasure in the community. Historic school buildings often are an integral part of the character of a community as they have served generations of children and families. The technical challenges involve being creative with the reuse of a building through imaginative design. The project team should work to understand a building's limitations, as well as its opportunities, so it can deliver a design that incorporates a mixture of treasures and deficiencies. Historic buildings often are more adaptable to reuse because of higher floor-to-floor heights, larger classrooms and large circulation spaces, and more durable materials.