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Back To The Future: The Value of Historic Schools in 21st Century Learning

Back to the Future movie shot with the text "Back to the Future The Value of Historic Schools in 21st century learning."
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Often the temptation with schools (or really any building) is to believe that newer is better. But I don't buy that. Sometimes the best answer for a school system and community is to preserve and protect what they already have. Although historic preservation isn't the right solution for everyone, it's worth not writing off.

Marty McFly: Hey, Doc. You’d better back up, we don’t have enough road to get up to 88 mph. 
Doc Brown: Roads? Where we’re going, we don’t need roads!

Over the last hundred years, K-12 school design has evolved from a string of generic and repetitive classrooms, to fully open plans with limited views and natural light, and back again to highly specialized rooms derived by function and pedagogical approaches. In fact, the only seeming constant in school design is change – most recently based on increasingly specialized programs, such as Charter Schools, and the growing recognition that learning takes place in a variety of settings.

So where does this trend leave the more than 45% of American school buildings constructed prior to 1970? As the author Stewart Brand wrote in his book How Buildings Learn, “All buildings are predictions, and all predictions are wrong.” What Brand meant is that the premises on which we design many buildings often don’t hold true once the building users move in, particularly when the users themselves change over time. In addition, once buildings turn 20 years or older, knowledge about how to operate and maintain the building fades, which inevitably leads to calls for a “faulty” and “obsolete” building to be replaced with new. While there are cases when these claims are true, the intrinsic value of an older or historic school building can be so great that its worth considering the following qualities before dismissing it:

  • History + Community – School buildings are among the most character defining components of a community. They are a source of communal experience, pride and identity. These buildings help convey the story of a community and its evolution to all the students who pass through their doors. This idea is in the consciousness of many venerated institutions of higher learning across the country. Imagine if Harvard or Yale decided to remove their historic buildings simply due to age. All communities deserve the physical experience of understanding and learning from their past. Although preservation is not always the best option for a community, I believe the depth of time exhibited by a historic school should be honored and preserved, rather than erased, whenever possible. Sometimes it’s just a matter of a school district being open to that possibility.
  • Sustainability – Older school buildings are accused of being notorious energy hogs undeserving of operating in today’s environmentally conscious society. Particularly for buildings constructed before WWII, this often is not the case. Schools built before the invention of HVAC systems utilized passive  sustainable design practices out of necessity. In general, these buildings included large double hung windows and skylights providing copious amounts of natural light, while performing sophisticated passive heating and ventilation operations. Single wythe solid mass building envelopes ­-- the cost of which precludes replication today -- can outperform modern high-performance wall systems, and likely require lower maintenance. Typically, it is the later interventions to “update” the buildings performance without considering these passive systems that inhibit the efficient operation of the building today. When possible, renovations should work with the original sustainable systems rather than try to overcome them in the name of modernization. Doing so will build upon the embodied energy, traditional knowledge and design brilliance of our predecessors.
  • Quality – In 1961 Author and Urbanist Jane Jacobs made a powerful argument for reusing our historic facilities when she posited that, “new ideas thrive in old buildings.” There is perhaps no greater goal of a school district than to create students who are adept at formulating new ideas. There are several characteristics of historic schools that support this theory. The regularity and non-specialized nature of historic classroom spaces allows them to be adapted to changing needs. For example, the typical square or rectangular shape of a historic classroom can grow or be subdivided more easily than irregular forms. This flexibility can be more accepting of change than highly specialized or form driven learning spaces. In addition, the warmth and tactile quality of historic finishes such as wood typically age well because they can be refinished. Many modern materials cannot be refurbished and must be replaced.

The Menasha High School renovation and addition project completed by EUA deftly illustrates many of these concepts. The iconic community building constructed in 1938 is a source of pride in the community, however decades of incremental changes, such as the addition of suspended acoustic ceilings in the corridors, interrupted air flows, blocked natural light and generally created a confining atmosphere by altering the spaces original proportions. Removing the ceilings and adding skylights dramatically improved the feeling and use of the space by reinstating and enhancing the original design rather than fighting against it.

Because learning environments should encompass a variety of sizes, feeling and configurations we should embrace the diversity that both old and new school buildings can provide. A mix of styles and age can and should reflect the diversity of the students served by these community buildings. So rather than assume an old building is unable to provide a 21st century learning environment, we should consider whether it has the potential to adapt to changing curricula and student needs.

What can you do to help ensure these valuable community buildings are preserved and maintained to provide 21st century education for the rest of the century? The National Trust for Historic Preservation developed the following Call to Action to sustain our nation’s historic schools:

  1. Remove bias in state funding for new construction.
  2. Eliminate “percentage rules” that discourage renovation if it costs, for example, two-thirds of the expense of new construction.
  3. Incentivize renovation by providing a higher subsidy for it over new construction
  4. Provide leasing guidelines for underutilized facilities until demographics change again.
  5. Ensure that the state’s building and fire codes encourage renovation of older and historic schools.

Your future hasn’t been written yet. No one’s has. Your future is whatever you make it. So, make it a good one. – Doc Brown

Jane Crisler, AIA, LEED AP
K-12 Market Leader : Historic Preservation : Principal

Jane Crisler is a K-12 Market Leader, Historic Preservation Specialist and Principal at EUA. She is based in EUA's Denver office and is a part of the Learning studio. Jane loves the Colorado lifestyle and spends time outdoors in her free time.

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