January 12, 2021

Benefits and Challenges of Adaptive Reuse in Higher Education

Adaptive reuse is the idea that an existing building can be repurposed for a new, modern use that is different from which it was originally designed. It’s a trend we’ve seen for many years but one that continues to grow, especially within higher education. Whether it’s retrofitting old factories into cool new apartments, or repurposing aging malls into experience hubs, there are many benefits to adaptive reuse projects. For higher education, adaptive reuse comes with many advantages and a handful of challenges. The decision to build new or repurpose an existing building can be a tough one. Here’s what we know:

Adaptive reuse is often a less costly option than building new.

Construction costs for adaptive reuse projects can be up to 50% less expensive than building new while providing the same amount of space. The building’s infrastructure and enclosure are already in place which means you’ll be involving fewer trades, temporary facilities, and materials in the project. Time is a large factor as well. Every day you can cut out of construction time will certainly save on costs.

Muskegon Community College’s Arts & Humanities building features more than 65,000 square feet for around $7.5 million dollars. The building had previously held the college’s automotive program.

The ceramics classroom at Muskegon Community College's Arts & Humanities building

Adaptive reuse can be less disruptive to campus life.

Adaptive reuse projects require less mobilization, less construction time, and are less disruptive to schedules. Often, these projects can be completed during summer or winter breaks or throughout a single semester. This quick construction time minimizes the downtime of valuable space. Renovation projects require less site work so little to no heavy equipment will be required making it safer for students and faculty. Because fewer materials are needed, less on-site storage space is required. This eliminates another disruptive campus eyesore.

Adaptive reuse is environmentally responsible.

The US Green Building Council (USGBC), the organization responsible for LEED certification, encourages projects that “extend the life cycle of the existing building stock, conserve resources, reduce waste, and reduce environmental impacts of new buildings as they relate to materials manufacturing and transport.” By reusing as much existing structure and materials as possible, we’re able to eliminate waste and save precious resources. Building systems, especially in terms of energy efficiency, are better today than ever before. Adaptive reuse can improve the over-all utility performance of a building by replacing old equipment and enclosures that are a drain on energy efficiency.

There is historic value in adaptive reuse.

Many times, projects that are prime candidates for adaptive reuse are located on the older core areas of campuses. These are the areas that give history to a university and provide connection with alumni. Given that they are in signature locations, these buildings offer the opportunity to showcase the history of the campus while creating spaces that meet the needs of today’s students and technology demands. There is value beyond the mere cost of construction in keeping older buildings in use.

Ender Hall, on the campus of Grand Rapids Community College, shows how a historic mansion was repurposed into a modern office and student lounge. The renovation shows off the building’s historic architecture while giving it new life.

Ender Hall at Grand Rapids Community College

Adaptive reuse can provide flexibility in master planning.

Including adaptive reuse in your master planning process will help provide more options for campus growth and modernization. These projects can help preserve large green spaces, which are essential to any campus, that otherwise might be used for building footprints. The consideration of adaptive reuse is a necessary part of any campus master plan since it allows for the creations of flex space needed for both growth and consolidation of existing campus space.

Adaptive reuse comes with challenges. Here are a few to keep in mind:

  1. Incorrect or non-existent records. Older buildings often have incomplete or non-existent records that would be required for any reuse project. However, there are options to help create new plans for an old building. Point cloud scanning technology, such as Matterport, can create 3D models of existing spaces and accurate records. While Matterport has several uses, we’ve used it to scan new projects as an innovative way for people to explore them no matter where they are in the world. Check out this scan of the Mary Free Bed YMCA.
  1. Hazardous materials. Let’s be honest, older buildings can come with some hazards. Things like asbestos, lead paint, and mold are often discovered during the renovation process. However, all these concerns can be handled and shouldn’t be a reason to not move forward with an adaptive reuse project.
  1. Unforeseen conditions. Planning a budget for a major renovation can be tricky. Unforeseen issues with a building or site may be hard to plan for until you’re well into a project. Updating infrastructure for modern technology needs can be especially tricky and costly. Budgets should be prepared with the expectation that an unforeseen issue will arise.
  1. Building code enforcement. Building codes have changed dramatically in the past few decades. Any renovation project will need to meet today’s building code and accessibility standards. This includes possible updates to meet ADA compliance, as well as safety and building standards. However, specialized building codes have been developed in the past decade for existing buildings to make adaptive reuse easier and more attainable.

We’re here to help.

Our full-service team includes cost estimators and construction experts who can help us determine the cost of a potential adaptive reuse project as compared with a new build. Their experience in these types of projects allows them to offer clear comparisons to help shape the decisions that successfully integrate old and new.

Check out some of our other adaptive reuse projects:

AMP Lab at Western Michigan University

AMP Lab in downtown Grand Rapids

Western Michigan University Richmond Center for Design and Innovation

WMU's Richmond Center for Design was previously known as Kohrman Hall and featured traditional style classrooms.

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