It's a common sight that has taken place tens of thousands of times over the years in communities across the country. Huge equipment rumbles across a plot of land to clear the way for construction. In a matter of several months, workers transform the barren acreage into a new education facility outfitted with modern materials and the most up-to-date systems.

A newly constructed education building typically is cause for celebration. It provides students and educators with a more effective and pleasing learning environment, and it has the potential to become a focal point that re-energizes a community.

But for many schools and universities, constructing a new facility isn't always a viable option. The envisioned facility may be too costly for a school system struggling with budget deficits. Maybe administrators can't find enough land in the right area to accommodate the type of facility needed. In some cases, the residents and businesses surrounding a potential education construction site don't want the perceived noise and traffic headaches that might come with a new facility.

Just like car buyers who decide the better deals for them are at the used car lot, many schools and universities are recognizing the feasibility and benefits of adaptive reuse — acquiring existing buildings and reimagining them as educational spaces.

"Schools are very receptive to adaptive reuse for economic reasons," says Larry Wente, a principal with Gertler & Wente Architects in New York City.

The right project

The advantages of finding an existing facility to adapt for a school are clear. From an environmental context, adaptive reuse is recycling on a grand scale. As the environmentalists' maxim states, "The greenest building is one already built." Extending the useful life of materials and equipment back in an existing facility means a school or university will use fewer resources than constructing a new facility.

Adaptive reuse also can provide economic benefits. With a structure already in place, education institutions gain a head start that can save on construction costs and the time it takes to get a project ready to welcome students and staff.

Transforming an unused facility into a visible, publicly embraced asset can help revive economically struggling neighborhoods. Adaptive reuse projects that are seen as a boost to the community as a whole often may garner political support that helps school officials navigate through bureaucracy and also may be able to attract outside financial support. This is especially true when the building in question is one that already holds historical significance for a neighborhood.

But not every building is an appropriate setting for an education institution. A facility, especially one that has been underused or vacant, may have renovation requirements so great that they negate the benefits of adapting an existing facility. An older building may have conditions that were not considered problems when it was constructed, but that are now viewed as troublesome (e.g., the presence of asbestos or lead paint). Some potentially budget-busting problems with a building's infrastructure may not be detected until well after a renovation has begun.

"It's important to build in enough contingency to account for unknowns, and it's important for architects to make sure the client understands it," says Wente.

A building's size, the way the interior space is laid out, and how effectively it can be divided into classrooms and other educational spaces will determine whether a facility is desirable as a school setting.

Even if a building's interior passes muster for educational purposes, it will have trouble succeeding as a school if it is situated in the wrong place. Many vacant factories or warehouses are in industrial areas that are incompatible with the environment sought for schools. Buildings that are too isolated or in areas with heavily trafficked roadways could raise safety concerns.