by James A. Baumann
The choice between building a new residence hall or renovating an existing building is not one campuses take lightly. It’s also not one that they are likely to make on their own, often conferring with planners and architects about the best strategy to meet their housing goals.
The Talking Stick reached out to member architectural firms to collect their input on what trends they are seeing and what they consider to be the benefits of renovation. We were overwhelmed with the quantity and quality of responses we received, and, unfortunately, we cannot include them all. Lightly edited excerpts from their answers appear below.
Marisa Nemcik, Cannon Design: Choosing to renovate over creating a totally new facility has several benefits, whether that be from a financial perspective, minimizing facility downtime, or preserving the student experience on campus. Renovations can also help maintain the legacy and culture of a campus, while improving the student experience for current and future generations.
Amy Daniels, Newman Architects: Renovating rather than replacing aging residence halls allows campuses to conserve both the embedded energy and the embodied social history of these essential campus building blocks, key aspects of sustainable design and construction. Many campuses possess robust residences that have housed students and hosted student life for generations, birthing lifelong friendships and fostering treasured experiences that endure powerfully in memory. Their historical architecture provides for the unchanging needs of young people, for a home away from home, in changing times.
Sara Stein, EYP: We recently surveyed 50 colleges and universities on the topic of new versus renew, where leaders ranked their priorities and commented on areas of significance on each campus. The top two factors of importance for schools considering renovation were a desire for interventions to improve student life within existing facilities due to a limited budget and a requirement to maximize return-on-investment with limited funding.
Peter Aranyi, Clark Nexsen: Assuming that the building structure is sound, the cost of a comprehensive renovation is generally 70–75% of the cost of new since site preparation has already been done, and the structure, and sometimes the building envelope, has already been built. At Penn State University, we worked on a comprehensive renovation of South Halls and the new construction of Chace Hall. The new construction project cost 32% more per square foot and 27% more per bed than the cost of a comprehensive renovation project.
In addition to the hard cost of demolition, site preparation, and new building construction, time is another reason universities choose renovation over new construction. Site preparation can take three to six months, depending upon what level of abatement or demolition is required, and the construction of a new structure and building envelope can also take three to six months, depending upon the choice of systems.
Marla Digitale, 4240 Architecture: We have extensive experience with residence halls and their lounges at Colorado State University. Revitalization is a term that’s been adopted by the university to refer to the potential to breathe new life into existing buildings, reevaluate the relationships between existing architecture and utility, and adapt to the evolution of residence life to meet students’ current needs.
Nadia Zhiri, TreanorHL: The first reason that campuses are choosing renovations over building new is fiscal. With debt service complete, renovations provide an opportunity to offer updated living environments, affordably. Based on a recent internal study, our data is showing a potential of a 33% savings by doing a renovation versus building new. That savings is the building alone and does not include site development costs of new construction, since that varies with every project.
There have also been situations when renovations can have cultural value to the students, alumni, and the institutions. One should analyze the merits of keeping a building that symbolizes something beyond bricks and mortar. There is value in this.
Nick Naeger, Mackey Mitchell Architects: To meet the high expectations of student residents, renovations need to address the basics: improved thermal comfort (adding air-conditioning where none existed originally), flexible spaces that support socializing and studying in groups large and small, places with ample daylight and views, and easy accessibility. Balancing the desire for privacy (especially bathrooms) with the need for comfortably furnished gathering areas is critical. We are also seeing a rise in the need for intimate places for quiet introspection, music practice rooms, an emphasis on wellness, and gaming spots, not to mention robust internet connectivity. Integrating these into older buildings is not terribly different from providing them in new construction. It does require creativity and careful planning.
Darryl Filippi and Jen Shiminsky, Bergmeyer: Many of the buildings we work on are mid-century residence halls, which are solidly built but lack the types of communal and semi-communal spaces that students are looking for today. Maintaining bed counts is a top priority, but we must also keep budget limitations at the forefront. By focusing on reconfiguring and refreshing the common areas, we can provide common spaces that encourage social events, group study and learning activities, and opportunities for heads-down work outside the confines of one’s room. Life safety and accessibility compliance are also critical components in extending the lifespan of these buildings, often absorbing the major part of construction budgets. With a fluent understanding of compliance avenues, we can offer options to maximize how to achieve the highest outcomes for the residents and community.
Mark Warner, EYP: Today’s colleges and universities are carefully considering and often redefining community spaces. Many older residence halls didn’t include these social gathering areas, or, if they did, they’ve lost their meaning over the years. The impact of EYP regularly incorporating community spaces into residential halls is transformative, maximizing collaboration, creating environments conducive to student learning, and positively impacting a student’s perception of his/her overall residence hall experience. EYP’s research also reveals a behavioral response to the built environment, where students are significantly more likely to interact with peers in their residence halls when there are a number of flexible community spaces provided.
Lynne Deninger, Cannon Design: In regards to design, identity has so much to do with how students experience a residence hall. We try to create a sense of individuality within every hall that the students can connect to. We’re seeing less of the built-ins like desks, wardrobes, etc. and more open floor area that can be customized or personalized. Old buildings often have good bones; we just need to make them more open and welcoming while providing modern features that will keep them running for another 25–30 years.
Bruce Boul, HMC Architects: A lot of student housing buildings in California are coming up on their fiftieth or more anniversary, and campuses must decide to remodel or tear down and build new. At San Diego State University, an existing building needed to be seismically strengthened, which is common with most 50-plus-year-old concrete buildings. Through an extensive and creative non-linear structural analysis, the design-build team was able to minimize the number of structural renovations that were necessary. Carbon fiber wrap was used on columns, the elevator core, and the underside of the roof to provide seismic strengthening without taking up valuable floor area.
The area around the backside of SDSU’s Zura Hall was underutilized. The grass area is shared by two other buildings, creating a gated residential community. With the renovation, the back yard was reimagined to have a resort-like feel. A large fire pit, tables with chairs and umbrellas, and soft seating areas were incorporated into the landscape. A portion of the lawn area was maintained for impromptu frisbee and soccer games, and smaller fire pits and foosball tables flank the building on both sides, creating spaces where students can study or just hang out. The roof over the lowest wing of the building was also transformed into a usable roof deck/garden with a BBQ area and space for tables and chairs. Movies can be projected on the side of the building as well.
Digitale: Braiden Hall and lounge at Colorado State saw the remarkable transformation of the buildings from brutalist, post-World War II structures into human-scaled and approachable works of architecture that redefined the aesthetic standards of housing on the campus and were designed to a LEED Gold standard. Braiden Hall and its surrounding landscape architecture were originally designed for a car-oriented campus. The renovation rethought the building’s relationship with nature, programming and activating adjacent indoor and outdoor spaces to create connectivity and sustain a pedestrian-friendly lifestyle. The common spaces of the buildings – study rooms, seminar rooms, student lounges, and cafés – were perhaps the most dramatically transformed to create shared living spaces for learning, socialization, and moments of reflection. These common areas are evident architectural cues that serve as lanterns for energy and movement. Not only do these additions and revitalization elements create a sense of campus pride and perform better, but they also build on the old campus tradition with new, elegant simplicity.
David Damon, Perkins & Will: Often, a general aesthetic refresh is enough to improve the feeling of – and desire to occupy – a space. Take the Cutter and Ziskind houses renovation at Smith College, for example. Many considered the original buildings stark, unwelcoming, and lacking the warmth of the more traditional housing. So we worked to preserve the architectural heritage, while updating spaces to support the needs of today’s students.
Daniels: The University of Mary Washington is one of these lucky campuses with a historic context and buildings that have been loved for many generations. Newman Architects, along with Train Architects, had the opportunity to renew two such iconic residences. The first, Willard Hall, was built in 1910, and the second, Virginia Hall, was built in three phases between 1914 and 1936. Both projects prioritized implementing the living and learning model and supporting the university's First-Year Seminar Program, while preserving treasured architectural characteristics and amenities whose value emerged from an online survey of current students and alumni. In addition to restored stairs, high ceilings, and large bedroom windows, each building provides substantial new community space, including academic space, and state-of-the art technology. Differing approaches to balancing preservation with contemporary expression in the two companion residences make for an interesting contrast.
Joe Stramberg, TreanorHL: Yes, renovations inherently promote sustainable strategies in reusing existing resources and reducing the sourcing of new materials, primarily concrete, steel, and most often the exterior skin of a building. There is embodied energy in all materials, which is the significant resources required – from the extraction of the raw material to manufacturing, shipping, and construction of the material.
Digitale: Reuse of existing buildings is one of the most sustainable architectural practices, as reuse continues the life of the embodied carbon in the building materials and extends each material’s lifecycle. This is especially true of many structural materials such as steel and concrete, which are carbon-intensive to produce.
Gene McDonald, HED: A building’s information technology infrastructure is particularly relevant, considering the current COVID-19 environment that we find ourselves in. Many universities could come out of this pandemic with a renewed vision of an online curriculum, and we could see a robust response that involves new campus data center growth at a level not yet imagined. For those universities that have not totally committed to online classes in the past, this will offer a trial by fire experiment that will glean many lessons.
John Southard, Hollis + Miller: As colleges and universities are making plans to renovate and update their older residence halls, they’re quickly realizing it’s a good time to update technology. Students have a new expectation of technology and how it can be seamlessly folded into their daily lives. This kind of paradigm shift can be easily seen in the changes to residence hall furniture, for example. While most of us remember large and bulky (and quite ugly) desks in our rooms, students now need a simple writing surface. The desk no longer needs to hold stacks of books and paper anymore, so we’re seeing a slimmer profile model in many rooms – if they include a desk at all.
Damon: Many decades-old residence halls don’t meet current accessibility requirements, so it’s important to update with equity of experience in mind. Plus older buildings suffer from outdated and inefficient building systems that can easily be upgraded for improved energy use and water use reductions. Many institutions see renovations as the only way to meet their climate action plans, so more efficient buildings with good systems are a no brainer.
James A. Baumann is the director of communications and publications at the ACUHO-I Home Office. firstname.lastname@example.org