With care, schools can reuse old buildings

October 21, 2007|By BOB MAGINNIS

At a time when the cost of a new high school can top $50 million, is it time to start thinking about turning more old buildings into public schools?

Washington County school officials believe it is. That's why they asked Brien Poffenberger, president of the Hagerstown-Washington County Chamber of Commerce, to bring it up in a recent meeting some local business leaders held with Michael Busch, Speaker of the Maryland House of Delegates.

In July, school officials said they were accepting proposals for a study of the feasibility of turning the former Allegheny Power building on Downsville Pike into a school or offices.

And there are other vacant buildings that might be transformed into classroom space, including the old Sears building on Northern Avenue and the sites of two former Lowe's stores, one on Maryland Avenue and the other on Wesel Boulevard.


According to an April story done for the Columbia News Service of the Columbia School of Journalism, conversions of shopping centers and other old buildings into schools have been concentrated in areas with rapidly growing enrollments and increasing land prices.

The story also noted that such reuse fits in with the idea of "smart growth" because it puts schools into already developed areas where they can double as community centers. Conversions can also be done in as little as six months, as opposed to the two years it can take for new school construction.

But it is not always easy to do and if done the wrong way, can be expensive, according to Dave Barista, managing editor of Building Design and Construction Magazine.

In June, Barista wrote an article in which he offered a series of tips for school systems contemplating turning an old retail or industrial building into a school.

Don't commit to buying before getting a thorough professional review of the site, the building and the mechanical systems, he said. Buildings with adequate water and sewer service deserve a second look, Barista said.

But be wary of buildings with low ceilings, because there need to be several feet above the standard nine-foot ceiling for ductwork, wiring and other cables, he said.

Security issues are also a big deal, Barista said, adding that the easy access that retailers want for shoppers is not what school officials need. Experts quoted by Barista suggest adding a large front vestibule where security checks can be performed.

Lighting is also a concern, because most buildings that are re-used have few windows. New windows added to the sides and a glass structure on the roof called a clerestory can let in sunlight, saving on electricity costs.

Finally, Barista said, systems need to know when to walk away. If the cost of adaptive reuse is more than 75 percent of the cost of new construction, it might not be a wise move.

Barista didn't speak to parent and student attitudes toward such conversions, but a logical starting point for the system might be Antietam Academy, which deals with students who have behavior and learning problems in traditional schools.

A new Antietam Academy wouldn't need to be a full-service campus with athletic fields and the like, but would allow more space for additional programs for troubled students.

Reached Friday, Superintendent Elizabeth Morgan said she had talked about the idea of adaptive reuse during a Wednesday meeting with Maryland's Board of Public Works held to get a few approvals on final items for the Barbara Ingram School for the Arts.

"We know we're going into a future where we're getting more students and maybe construction costs are going up," she said.

Morgan said she'd like to see the state expand its traditional method of school-construction funding, in which the state reimburses counties for new construction.

In some situations, Morgan said, it might make more sense to retrofit a building into a school or to lease classroom space. The flexibility to do those things could not only save money but also help revive an area, as the arts school is expected to do, she said.

Which method would be appropriate would depend on the particular project and the particular group of students, she said.

If she had met with Speaker Busch, Morgan said she would have "made a pitch for expanding the concept of school-construction funding."

As for the Allegheny Energy building, Boyd Michael, assistant superintendent of school operations, said that although the School Board has solicited proposals from architects to evaluate the building, "at this time the board has made no additional decision regarding that. There's still some consideration about the building, but no decisions have been made."

Would you like your children to attend school in a converted retail building? Depending on how Maryland's budget woes are resolved, the debate might not be over whether to convert an old building or construct a new one, but between revamping an old structure or adding more portable classrooms.

It's a discussion that needs to happen soon. During a work session held in September, Michael told the School Board it's estimated that a new high school planned for the eastern part of the county that is scheduled to open in 2012 is could cost a cool $64.4 million.

Bob Maginnis is

editorial page editor of

The Herald-Mail newspapers.

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