The Case for Renovating Early 20th Century School Buildings
Many K-12 school districts manage facilities built during different eras, and struggle to prioritize their investments when it comes time to refurbish or overhaul them. In many cases, as we work with these clients to explore possible courses of action, we find that the older schools—dating from the 1920s and 1930s—are more accommodating and simpler to renovate versus buildings from the 1950s and 1960s. Here’s why:
Larger-scaled spaces. The high ceilings, wide hallways, big classrooms, and generous common areas of older schools offer more capacity and flexibility for revamping the existing spaces and adding new infrastructure such as ductwork or plumbing and electrical chases. In contrast, schools from the late 1950s and 1960s usually have lower ceiling heights and much tighter, more compact structural configurations—often insufficient for today’s mechanical system needs.
Durable materials. While the hardwood floors or marble counters common in older schools would never be installed in a new K-12 school today due to their high cost, these materials are long-lasting and usually require less frequent replacement than newer materials such as vinyl flooring or laminate counters. And the cost of restoring original materials versus replacing them is often comparable. Plus, these materials and other historic building elements (e.g. double-height ceilings, intricate woodwork) offer a visual history of the school itself, and can become a point of pride or even a curriculum element for the school community.
“Built-in” energy efficiency. Older schools were usually designed and built for passive heating and ventilation, with elements such as large, operable windows, proper solar orientation, and construction materials that offer good thermal mass. School built later in the 20th century tend to rely less on design principles and more on active mechanical HVAC systems for thermal comfort.
As K-12 districts assess the need to build new schools or renovate existing ones, it helps to avoid any assumptions about which buildings are most feasible to retain. Instead, districts should find a partner that will seek a variety of alternatives and compare their costs to come up with the best plan of action. Using that diligence to get support from the community and other stakeholders, K-12 districts can maximize their investments and preserve cultural value.