Save it or Gut It? Making the Optimal Renovation Choice

by Steven Allen

steve allen

Steve Allen

How do you decide when it’s time for the building you have been nursing along for decades to undergo more than just another cosmetic renovation and apply “tough love” to reinvent it?

Our architectural and interiors firm, PCA, faces this question whenever we renovate academic and student life buildings on campuses. Once the vision is cast for what a building can become, the process begins of placing value to what exists in the building. Architecturally, if the “bones” of the building are sound, and there are features that enhance the renovation outcome, those qualities are integrated with the new.

One university hired us to gut a dining hall kitchen and some servery stations with a budget of $6 million. Once the project began, the administration decided that they wanted to spend as little money as possible, and directed the team to maintain as much of the existing systems as feasible. Much time was spent documenting and designing around existing infrastructure. A complicated set of construction documents produced a reduced scope project for $5.5 million.

Wheaton College faced similar decisions with kitchen, servery, and dining spaces at its two dining halls. Chase Hall, built in 1957, didn’t function as a unified space and had a severely aging infrastructure. Emerson Hall, built in 1908, offered historic character, but was operating with significant functional deficiencies.

For Chase Hall, the choice was to gut the entire kitchen and servery. Although the college initially wanted to keep parts of the main kitchen, PCA convinced Wheaton that building a compact kitchen would save money and allow for more flexibility in relocating the program. Wheaton’s strength was the decision to gut the building rather than try to work around a failing infrastructure. By clearing house, PCA was able to reconnect the separated dining areas to create a unified Chase Hall. Bids came in below expectations, and in the end, the school will have a “new building.” Cost: less than $5.5 million.

At Emerson Hall, the goal was to improve the function and program offerings while amplifying the existing character. The kitchen was determined to be adequate for the future program. Renewing the servery to match the character of the dining area and providing proper restrooms will allow for increased flexibility. Emerson will become a hangout for students and also be available for campus events, conferences, and rentals.

When building systems are evaluated, what criteria can be used to determine what remains, what is altered, or what is replaced?

  • Does it meet present code? In today’s renovation codes, there is not an obligation to bring up all existing systems to code compliance. Unless specifically noted, existing systems can remain, while new work must meet the building code for new construction. The designer will present the code compliance strategy in its construction documents to the building officials.
  • Can you leave a present system untouched and supplement it?
  • Do the long-term benefits of new systems outweigh the short-term costs? Replacing older systems likely saves energy costs that may pay for the replacement over a few years. Utility rebates for lighting, variable speed motors, controls, and water-saving equipment may shorten the time. New systems may enhance ease of operation and improve staff productivity. New systems must be maintained, but repair costs are reduced.
  • Will new systems enhance the long-term flexibility of spaces for future uses?
  • Constructing new building systems can cost less than adding and modifying new systems. At Chase Hall at Wheaton College, gutting the space meant that subcontractors could limit their risk of finding hidden conditions and interpreting complex scope implications. More subcontractors were interested in a straightforward, clean project, and multiple bids meant substantial savings to the owner.

Steven Allen, AIA, LEED AP, is a principal at Prellwitz Chilinski Associates.