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Renovate, don't demolish, Roosevelt

Erie Times-News
Friday, June 5, 2009

By Thomas Hylton

The financial crash has put a massive dent in America’s culture of consumption, and economists say the change may be permanent.  The days of easy credit are over, and we have to start living within our means.  Moreover, dramatic reductions in energy consumption will be needed to avert the worst effects of a second looming crisis – global warming.

Whether Americans can adopt sustainable lifestyles will be determined by thousands of individual decisions.  One such decision – whether to renovate or replace Erie school buildings -- will be considered 9 a.m. tomorrow during a special meeting of the Erie School Board.

Superintendent Jim Barker wants to demolish the 1922 Roosevelt Middle School and replace it with a new school for pupils in grades 1 through 8.  He also wants to replace the 1916 Wayne School and the 1923 Edison School with a new consolidated K-8 school.

The proposal represents the conventional thinking that school districts have embraced for decades:  Everything is disposable, and old can never be as good as new.  But the reality is quite different.  Pre-war buildings are usually much more solidly constructed, adaptable, and energy efficient than those built after 1950.

Consider the Roosevelt School.  Constructed of steel, concrete and masonry, the building can last indefinitely with good maintenance and periodic renovations.  Its two-story layout is more efficient to heat and cool than the sprawling one-story schools that became fashionable in the suburbs.  Its high ceilings provide plenty of space for new wiring, ductwork, and insulation.  Its large window openings capture plenty of natural daylight, and new high-performance glazing will provide exactly the same energy savings as windows in a new building.

Last year, on behalf of Preservation Pennsylvania, a team of experienced public school architects toured and evaluated the Roosevelt building for reuse as a K-8 school serving 700 students.  The architects concluded that Roosevelt was well suited for renovations. It could provide all the amenities of a new school and a life span that would match or exceed new construction. 

The estimated cost of renovations was considerably less than that of a new building. Not included was the cost of demolishing the current school, which could easily exceed $1 million.  Their findings were consistent with statistics from the state Department of Education which show that new school construction is about twice as expensive, per square foot, as renovations, when total project costs are considered. Additionally, to encourage renovations, the state offers a 10 percent subsidy bonus for renovations and additions to existing buildings.

Much of the cost of new construction goes for building materials that could be manufactured anywhere.  On the other hand, renovations require fewer materials but are more labor intensive, creating more jobs, dollar for dollar, than new construction. 

And there are tremendous energy savings in renovating older buildings.  Buildings like Roosevelt are vast repositories of energy.  It took energy to extract and manufacture the building materials used for the school.  It took more energy to transport them to the site.  Yet more energy was expended constructing the building. 

If Roosevelt is demolished, all the energy locked up in the building is wasted.  Razing the building wastes more energy.  Yet more energy is consumed constructing a new building.  That’s why the state Department of Environmental Protection says the “greenest” building is the one that’s already built.   

Sustainability requires making better, wiser use of our existing buildings.  With tens of millions of dollars at stake, the Erie School Board should solicit proposals from a wide range of architects about the future of Erie’s schools.  New thinking may be needed more than new buildings. 




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