Abysmal light, hazardous materials, barriers to access, dubious fire protection, poor energy performance, dated aesthetics …it’s all so last century. Yet these buildings hold tremendous value for institutions and their students.
by Marc Perras and Christian Strom
Every campus has at least one: the 1960s-era building whose design may or may not be iconic, but which is inevitably tired, often spurned, sometimes decrepit, and occasionally even dangerous. Who wouldn’t be after more than 50 years of hard use, and little attention other than incremental changes or upgrades aimed at keeping things going for another few years?
The albatross factor is real. Institution leaders facing budget shortfalls and declining enrollment among other challenges may wonder if such buildings are worth the effort involved in bringing them up to 21st century standards.
So Last Century
Quinsigamond Community College’s Surprenant Hall and Hebert Auditorium (QCC) is a case in point. The 62,000sf building houses classrooms and an auditorium, and like many of its brethren on campuses across the country, is distinguished mainly by its deferred maintenance and its monotonous, if rhythmic, vertical window pattern accented in gold that marches down the otherwise dull four-story brown brick rectangle.
And like many of its counterparts, it has a plethora of accessibility challenges. If you were a student actor who literally broke your leg and was subsequently honored for your performance at the year-end awards ceremony, you’d be unable to accept your award, having no way to get up to the stage. If you were a woman in a wheelchair on the first floor attending class, you’d be hard-pressed to get to the restroom designated for your gender on the second, as male-female facilities alternate between floors. The list goes on.
Meanwhile, there are long narrow hallways, daylight that corresponds with the aforementioned window patterns rather than human rhythms, wasteful systems, buried asbestos, lead piping, harmful ductwork sealants and no fire protection in about 80% of the building. Yikes.
Maybe just start over? Likely a $100+ million exercise. But renovate, mitigate, innovate? More like $13 million, which includes a 4,000sf addition to the theater. Plus, the environmental value captured by not demolishing the building and constructing a new one, and the cultural value realized by sustaining representation of a rich period in American design and history, cannot be overlooked. (These buildings are the result of huge growth in the college-going population, which doubled between the late 1940s and the 1960s.)
Think Beyond the Code
The fact is, barring a severely dilapidated state, mid-century campus buildings are always worth saving. Getting the most from the investment means one thing: thinking beyond the code. While enhancing safety, and improving access and efficiency make for a more safe, cost-effective and comfortable building, it’s making them a place where people want to be that gives buildings maximum staying power.
That’s our job as designers: to find and leverage every opportunity presented by each code requirement and put them together in a way that makes the experience of the building the best it can be, inside and out. Not just safe, but attractive. Not just comfortable, but inviting. Not just efficient, but enduring. Intuitive and unified. Imaginative and interesting. Practical and uplifting. These are the qualities that draw people in and foster their allegiance.
We love breathing new life into these buildings even though they’re often nightmarish in terms of the condition they’ve fallen into, or started with for that matter. These buildings at QCC presented among the most complicated accessibility challenges we’ve encountered in more than 20 years of practice; in particular, the bathroom renovation was a Swiss watch of clearances.
To succeed means working hand in hand with the consultants charged with so much of the work of revival. The more we understand the challenges and opportunities they face, the better ideas we can bring to the table, whether it’s graciously resolving the challenge of turning one restroom into two, or the best way to make a modest entry court both accessible and engaging.
Figuring out how to work with the logic of the old building while making it work for the next 50 years is a fun challenge for Jones. While students and educators at QCC will have to wait until fall 2024 to enjoy the results, they’ll experience as little disruption as possible thanks to smart phasing and planning by construction manager Bond Building Construction.
Marc Perras, AIA is associate principal, and Christian Strom, AIA is associate at Jones Architecture.