Giving New Life to Old Space: Campuses Find Efficiencies-And a Dose of Nostalgia-In Repurposing Rather Than Rebuilding Facilities

By Zalaznick, Matt | University Business, January 2014 | Go to article overview

Giving New Life to Old Space: Campuses Find Efficiencies-And a Dose of Nostalgia-In Repurposing Rather Than Rebuilding Facilities


Zalaznick, Matt, University Business


Repurposing an old campus building may not have the wow factor that comes with creating a new facility from scratch. But colleges and universities driven by financial, environmental and sentimental forces sometimes find rejuvenating the buildings they already have is a more practical solution.

Repurposing projects can sometimes be done more quickly or may be the only choices for urban campuses with space constraints. In repurposing, institutions also can maintain historic campus character cherished by alumni.

"You can't quantify the value in a historic structure," says Alan Rubacha, director of the physical plant at Wesleyan University in Connecticut. "We always choose to reuse or recycle or adopt as opposed to building new, even though building new might have been cheaper and it would've been easier."

Florida State University, with little room to expand outward in downtown Tallahassee, built a state-of-the art building around two historic dining halls to create a new academic complex in the center of campus.

"We had an opportunity to develop the building and max it out without crushing the historic significance of it," says Lawrence R. Rubin, director of design and construction in Florida State's facilities department. "Acreage-wise, we're really tight. We're an urban campus and we don't have blank, undeveloped land."

SUNY Binghamton is turning a cluster of dorms into academic buildings. It will take only a few years, compared to the 10 years it could have taken to build a new complex, says James VanVoorst, vice president for administration. "We were able to make use of buildings that had outlived the functionality of what they were designed for, and with a little TLC, we're bringing them back."

At Lafayette College in Pennsylvania, converting an old fraternity house into an internationally-themed residence hall was a way to teach students about environmental sustainability, says Mary Wilford-Hunt, Lafayette's director of facilities planning and construction.

"Hopefully, the building now reaches out to occupants in a way that encourages them to conduct their lives more sustainably: to recycle, to refill water bottles, to understand energy use," she says. "We tried wherever possible to make it a learning environment."

And while Birmingham-Southern College in Alabama turned an old pool into the Southern Environmental Center, keeping the original tiles in what was the pool's shallow end provides a familiar touch for graduates.

"Alums who don't recognize much of the campus anymore come down the stairs and recognize the tiles from the swimming pool and they become emotional--it's an anchor," says Roald Hazelhoff, the center's director.

Key to repurposing any building is to solve challenges related to space planning, technology upgrades, and keeping the project (and finished building) green. Here's how these and other campuses worked out those aspects of planning while repurposing everything from a Harry Potter-style dining hall, to outdated squash courts, to a former pro football practice facility, into modern buildings with fresh uses.

41 Wyllys Avenue, Wesleyan University Middletown, Conn.

Now: Houses two academic departments and the career center. Includes five classrooms, three conference rooms, and 31 offices. Located on Wesleyan's College Row. Reopened 2012.

Then: Facility with 17 squash courts built in the late 1920s/early 1930s.

Cost: $7.13 million

Size: 23,000 square feet (original was 13,000 square feet)

Design: Newman Architects, New Haven, Conn.

Space: The building was split into quarters, with classrooms, the career center, the art history department, and the College of Letters each getting one-fourth of the space.

Technology: Since squash courts have high ceilings, there was lots of room for wiring to be hidden. The HVAC system uses smaller pipes than traditional systems, leaving more room for technology infrastructure. …

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