Higher-education institutions seem to be in perpetual need of expansion or change. Such dynamics often are governed by physical space requirements: for example, to accommodate fast-growing academic programs, to incorporate specialized equipment or research, or to execute phased renovation plans. In these circumstances, the appropriate spaces rarely are available at the precise time that their need becomes most acute. Thus, many institutions are exploring nontraditional options.

One way to meet on-campus demands is to look off campus. Communities are peppered with abandoned industrial buildings: warehouses, big-box stores, manufacturing facilities. Typically lacking any architectural merit, these non-descript buildings exist as a testament to the evolution of our economies. In suburbs and "edge cities," they populate industrial parks, commercial strip developments, and frequently the areas near major university campuses.

Although abandoned industrial buildings may seem less than ideal, institutions can benefit from transforming these unconventional facilities into ones that suit academic needs. As a cost-effective, sustainable and efficient alternative to new construction—which typically is more expensive and more time-consuming—renovations of existing buildings can produce needed facilities with shorter time-to-occupancy schedules and often lower construction costs.

Embracing the Benefits

Whether they have been deserted because of failed business ventures, competition, mergers or consolidations, former industrial buildings have inherent characteristics that nearby academic institutions can turn into an advantage. These facilities provide wide-open enclosed space, often with generous ceiling heights, and only one or two stories in height; they also usually include one or more loading bays, ample parking (more so in the suburbs), convenient roadway access and available utility service. For campuses lacking space and budgets for new construction, these former industrial properties can be attractive targets for reuse, renovation and revitalization.

Renovations also are sustainable and resource-efficient. Minimizing environmental costs and the impact of new construction can be a worthwhile goal. New buildings demand extraordinary amounts of energy and raw materials, and produce excessive waste. By reusing existing buildings and construction materials, renovation projects are inherently sustainable.

Compared with new construction, renovations can offer lower cost-per-square-foot costs. And because the building already exists, the municipal permitting process often is faster than for a new structure.

Revitalizing buildings and their sites also benefits the community. By removing the blight of an unoccupied building, renovation projects can re-energize neighborhoods and illustrate the value of re-investment. If a building was unattractive, its renewal gives a revitalizing facelift to the surrounding area. If the facility was not previously affiliated with an education institution, its reinvention can be tailored to express the institution’s own image. Replacing or adding windows, re-cladding exteriors, or adding new facade details can express a university’s identity and demonstrate its new directions.

Strategic Development

Every facility is unique. By capitalizing on the particular characteristics of an existing building, an institution can generate a unique environment that supports its desired academic or research mission. High volumes and open floor plans, for example, allow considerable latitude and maximum flexibility for interior layouts. A particular advantage of one-story buildings is that they can be transformed dramatically with the introduction of skylights or selectively raised roofs to bring daylight into the building.

At suburban sites, particularly industrial or office parks, extensive adjacent parking can be an added benefit, but may in some cases actually exceed the university’s needs. In these situations, ample opportunity exists to enhance the site by converting pavement into planted areas. This solution can improve stormwater management and improve the surrounding wildlife habitat—not to mention create a more attractive site.

By revitalizing an abandoned building, an institution can demonstrate its commitment to sustainable practices and to the neighborhood. The Savannah College of Art & Design in Savannah, Ga., has embraced this methodology to create a "distributed campus." It has acquired and converted buildings throughout the city over the course of several decades. Many of those buildings featured notable architectural character, but quite a few were unremarkable industrial structures that have now been given new lives.

Overcoming Challenges

Reusing an existing building brings with it a range of challenges. Some are associated with a building’s age and origination; others are unique to the particular structure.

Regardless of a facility’s age, it is likely to have structural dimensions (both floor-to-floor and column spacing) that are less than optimal for the intended academic program. For example, wet-bench research laboratories require a column spacing of between 10 and 12 feet (or multiples thereof), but an existing structural grid may not allow for such orientations.

One strategy for working around a tight floor-to-floor dimension (such as for laboratories in a multi-story building) would be to add more vertical utility shafts. This solution minimizes the lengths of duct run-outs on any given floor. Alternatively, instead of introducing a suspended ceiling, utilities and structures could be left exposed. This latter solution requires less building material (itself a sustainable choice), reduces the extent of MEP coordination, and allows for taller room heights.

With industrial buildings from the mid-1900s, asbestos and other hazardous materials often are a concern, and abatement or mitigation is required as a precursor to renovations. This is by now a well-known fact among property owners, and will figure into all cost and schedule modeling for such building projects.

Typically, the cost of renovating former industrial buildings to meet building codes and institutional standards will be more cost-effective than comparable new construction. However, that is not always the case, and institutions must perform a thorough analysis of project costs prior to committing resources to a renovation. Depending upon the condition of a building and the particular uses that an institution wishes to insert, renovations may be more expensive.

The benefits and assets of existing-building renovations should be considered; such buildings can provide ample floor area at modest cost, often with ceilings higher than what might be affordable with new construction. Indeed, the "generic" characteristics that distinguish such buildings can provide terrific opportunities for redesign and transformation to suit a variety of academic uses, from offices to research space, indoor recreation to arts facilities. And when the institution needs "swing space" to facilitate renovation phasing on campus, or simply desires to move "back office" space off-campus in order to preserve on-campus space for essential functions, the reuse of a former industrial building can present a compelling solution.

Sidebar: Case Study: Cell and Genome Sciences Building at the University of Connecticut Health Center

The University of Connecticut Health Center (UCHC) portion of the "UConn 2000" capital expansion plan called for a new research tower attached to the main campus in Farmington, Conn. The university required space to expand growing research concerns, to create new business incubator space, to relocate select programs and to create swing space for future renovations. In addition, a physically separate space for stem-cell research was desired in order to comply with the federal regulations in effect at the time.

Preliminary analysis showed, however, that the costs and complexities of placing the building onto the already-congested hospital site would strain the budget. UCHC instead chose to acquire a vacant, 117,000-square-foot industrial research building only one-half mile from the main campus. The site was close enough to connect with the campus community, while providing more than 20 acres of additional land for parking and future expansion.

The building at 400 Farmington Avenue presented some challenges expected of a renovation project: The roofing and mechanical systems were at the end of their useful life and had to be replaced, and the structural system did not meet seismic requirements. As a former industrial lab, the building came with some structural obstacles specific to its former use. A largely window-less exterior, irregular interior column grid, and an un-remediated oil leak under an area of the foundation slab added to the problems. However, that same former history made the building an excellent candidate for reuse in other key ways. These included a generous floor-to-roof dimension, adequate mechanical and penthouse spaces for a lab program, exterior and some interior walls suitable for reuse, as well as some equipment that could be refurbished and returned to use, such as the emergency generators.

Facing the twin challenges of a constrained budget and an ambitious program that would combine a variety of wet lab, dry lab, vivarium and support space requirements, the architect undertook the revitalization.

To transform the overall sense of the building, designers added windows on the perimeter walls and skylights along central corridors to bring in daylight to laboratory spaces. Sunshades and new entry canopies complement these expansive glass elements to give the building’s exterior and interior an entirely new cast. These renovations reinvented the interior ambience and have prominently announced the building’s change in ownership and function.

Multiple disciplines and functions have been combined in the space, which now include genetics, cell imaging, stem-cell research, incubator labs, generous conference room space, and a 100-seat auditorium. The facility has become a destination for the UCHC community, and meets all of the project’s initial goals. Simple materials and economical, flexible systems brought the project in under a tight budget cap. The project is targeted for LEED gold.

Goldstein, FAIA, LEED, is principal and Feely, LEED, is an associate with Goody Clancy, Boston. They can be reached at roger.goldstein@goodyclancy and michael.feely@goodyclancy.

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