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Case can be made for saving schools

Erie Times-News
Friday, Aug. 17, 2007

By Thomas Hylton

Everyone agrees the 1922 Roosevelt Middle School is in bad shape and had to be closed. But the question is, should Roosevelt be renovated or replaced?

Two years ago, Roth Marz Partnership suggested tearing down Roosevelt and replacing it with a new school. Similar recommendations have been made in districts all across the commonwealth in recent decades, leading to the abandonment and often demolition of hundreds of historic schools. Next year, for example, the Altoona Area School District will abandon two 80-year-old junior high schools when a new $48 million mega-school for 1,800 students is finished.

Concerned by this trend, the Pennsylvania Department of Education and the Pennsylvania School Boards Association have sponsored a new brochure encouraging school districts to renovate, rather than replace, older school buildings. The booklet, called "Renovate or Replace," features essays from Gov. Ed Rendell´s top cabinet officers, arguing that keeping existing schools can save tax dollars, reinforce established neighborhoods, and still provide facilities that meet 21st century educational standards.

In fact, a review of all major school construction projects approved by the Department of Education in the last three years shows that new construction is about twice as expensive, per square foot, as renovations and additions, when total project costs are considered.

To encourage school districts to renovate existing buildings, the Public School Code was amended in 2005 to provide a 10 percent state subsidy bonus for renovations and additions to existing schools and another 10 percent bonus for energy-efficient "green" buildings.

Ironically, school buildings constructed prior to 1940 usually make better candidates for renovation as "green" buildings than post-war schools. That´s because schools like Roosevelt -- masonry bearing structures that rely on massive walls to provide structural stability – can last indefinitely with major renovations every 20 or 30 years. Their compact, multi-story layout is more efficient to heat and cool than the sprawling one-story buildings that became fashionable in the 1950s. Their high ceilings provide plenty of space for new wiring, ductwork, and piping. Their large window openings capture plenty of natural daylight, while new high performance glazing can provide the same insulation value as two inches of fiberglass batts.

And the No. 1 principle of green building design is to renovate and recycle existing buildings, writes Kathleen McGinty, state Secretary of Environmental Protection. Renovations make the maximum use of existing materials and reduce demolition debris.

The Uniform Construction Code adopted by Pennsylvania in 2004 provides special provisions to make it easier to renovate older school buildings. It contains a point system allowing creative ways to provide levels of safety equal to or greater than code standards for new buildings. Unfortunately, many architects – including school architects – do not know how to fully apply the rehabilitation code and therefore provide cost estimates that are much greater than they need to be.

Earlier this month, the Crawford Central School District approved a plan to renovate two Meadville elementary schools built in 1929 and 1938. With the cooperation of the Erie School District, I asked Crawford Central´s architect, Ellis Schmidlapp – who specializes in historic buildings -- to tour Roosevelt and offer his initial impressions of the school.

Schmidlapp concluded Roosevelt is a good candidate for renovation as a "green" school. "With the addition of a regulation-sized gymnasium and thoughtful rehabilitation of the remaining spaces, it can continue to serve its intended function," Schmidlapp wrote. "In our experience, rehabilitation to a level which provides all the amenities of new construction can be achieved at costs of $50 to $60 per square foot less than new construction."

But saving money is just one reason to rehabilitate older schools. As Gerald Zahorchak, Pennsylvania Secretary of Education, writes in Renovate or Replace, "Older school buildings are significant community assets … many historic school buildings were constructed with materials and workmanship we cannot duplicate today."

The Erie School District, which boasts some of the finest civic architecture in Pennsylvania, is a perfect example. No school district today could afford to construct a building like the 1928 Strong Vincent High School or the 1917 Northwest Pennsylvania Collegiate Academy. Buildings like the 1930 Jefferson School, with an Art Moderne façade, and the 1914 Italianate Emerson-Gridley School, are virtually irreplaceable.

Older schools are far more than bricks and mortar. Gracefully designed schools evolve over time into much-beloved landmarks that tie together generations of people through decades of shared experience going to the same school. They give communities their sense of place and identity. They can be – and should be – preserved.






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