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Build New or Renovate: 6 Key Considerations for School District Leaders

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During our long-term facilities planning work with school districts, a key threshold question is often asked: do we build new or renovate? At EUA, we never answer that question for our clients. Rather, through deep listening, engaging stakeholders and analyzing data, we help school district leaders find the answers that best fit their individual circumstances. 

Effective planning and design teams guide their clients through a point-by-point analysis of each facilities option. Here’s a peak behind the curtain at just a few of the evaluation criteria Districts should consider when assessing whether to renovate or build new: 

Cost – Some view new construction as prohibitively expensive. In reality, the cost of renovation and new construction can be quite similar. This is especially true when renovating an old or historic school building where significant unexpected costs can quickly add up.

Community ConnectionAlthough difficult to measure, don’t lose sight of the intrinsic value a historic school building has to a community. Historic school buildings can hold within them emotional connections to individual community members and collective memories of places, people and events.

Originally built in 1937, Menasha High School’s new addition and renovation preserved and honored the historic building while blending with a modern, student-centered space.

Safety – Students and staff are at the forefront of our minds as we think about how to safely phase a renovation project. This can be complicated, as it requires taking sections of the building off-line during portions of the year. Dust and noise can also be an annoyance (or worse) for some and is important to keep in mind when planning for phased renovations during the school year.

Capital Maintenance Needs / Envelope – It is important to assess an existing school’s building systems and exterior envelope to determine if there will be opportunities for additional insulation and air barriers, ways in which to increase natural daylighting and the ability to improve the building’s overall energy use profile—and at what cost.

Kettle Moraine School District completed district-wide renovations and improvements to not only create modern learning environments but also to address capital maintenance issues, safety + security issues and ADA compliance.

Academic Program – School buildings constructed between the 1950’s and 1960’s were built around a teacher-centered instructional model. Many classrooms today have adopted a student-centered approach to instruction, with more active learning, collaborating and small-group activity. How easily can your existing facility be renovated to accommodate this shift in educational delivery

At the School District of Menomonee Falls’ renovation, additional space was created for Career and Technical Education curriculum to expand offerings and cross-disciplinary education.

Sustainability – A newly constructed building can more precisely be outfitted with various sustainable building systems that both save operational dollars and, if displayed properly, be used as part of the school curriculum. On the other hand, some might argue that thoughtfully remodeling an existing building is the ultimate expression of sustainability. As the saying goes, “The greenest building is one that has already been built.”

So, is there an easy answer? A magic formula that clearly indicates when new construction should be favored over a renovation of an existing space? Unfortunately, no. Many Districts begin to consider new construction as the cost of renovations begins to approach two-thirds to three-quarters of the cost of new construction. However, there are many other factors at play that a simple ratio can’t capture, and the best course of action is unique for each District and building.

Andy Lyons + Abie Khatchadourian

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