A New School of Thought
When Paul Cummins looked at a rat-infested garage in an industrial area of Santa Monica a few years ago, he envisioned a library. When he drove by an abandoned mini-mall near Belmont High School, he saw a charter school for inner-city children. And when Cummins walked through obsolete aerospace buildings from the 1960s, he saw classrooms for kindergartners.
Cummins, president of Crossroads School and New Roads School--private schools in Santa Monica--has put together sprawling urban school campuses for both during the past three decades, largely by reusing older buildings. He also played an advisory role in the creation of the campus of the Camino Nuevo charter school, a public school near downtown L.A. fashioned out of a mini-mall. Cummins notes with pride that none of his school conversion projects have displaced people from their homes or businesses, unlike some public school projects.
Cummins is not alone in his desire to recycle existing architecture into schools. The practice has become a specialty of a handful of local architects, and several of their projects have won design awards. Interest in the conversion of existing buildings into schools is gathering particular momentum in California, where school construction is a matter of urgency. Statewide, public school districts must somehow build 344 schools in the next five years, according to the state Department of Education. Los Angeles Unified School District must build 85 new schools in the next six years, an unprecedented building feat for a district that has not built a new high school since 1971. "If we don't succeed, there will be 63,000 students without seats by the year 2007," said Jim McConnell, LAUSD chief facilities executive. "Those are staggering numbers."
But while some see buildings in long-developed urban areas as raw material for new classroom space, many public school officials locally dispute whether such conversions are less expensive and therefore more viable than new construction. Still, LAUSD, which has not relied on rehabs in the past, is looking at properties for school make-overs. Recently, the school board agreed to buy an office building in Sun Valley as the site of a new high school, and officials are exploring the possibility of building high schools in the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce building in downtown Los Angeles, as well as a 17-story parking structure at 17th and Grand Avenue owned by Maguire Partners.
Converting older buildings into schools, however, can involve "tons of technical challenges," according to architect Joseph Pica, principal of Los Angeles-based Pica & Sullivan. Older buildings often need substantial seismic upgrades to meet today's building codes. They also need new plumbing and electrical conduits for computers and Internet hookups, as well as safety features, such as smoke alarms and fire sprinklers.
In some cases, school conversions do not require changing the form of the original building, such as the religious classrooms in the landmark Wilshire Temple in the Mid-Wilshire area, which have become a middle school for Camino Nuevo. At the Bahai Temple in Baldwin Hills, New Roads School persuaded the congregation to build a new wing to serve as both a middle school and a new social hall for the temple.
This kind of conservative makeover also worked with two houses in Pasadena, which have become classroom and administrative space for Westridge School, a private prep school for girls. Nestled in a high-end residential neighborhood, the school bought and redesigned a neighboring Tudor-style home, with classrooms on the second level and administrative space below.
Embarking on a Delicate Project
The conversion of the former Pitcairn House, a 1906 house by Arts-and-Crafts masters Greene & Greene, was an even more delicate project. Architect Pica and his partner Maureen Sullivan restored several walls that had been removed in an earlier remodel and found ways to install modern fire sprinklers and smoke detectors with minimal intrusion to the wood-lined walls.
More often, however, adapting a building into a school requires radical rebuilding. Consider a pair of 40-year-old office buildings in Santa Monica that Crossroads School converted into elementary school classrooms in 1997. Built for a now-defunct aerospace company, the buildings were enormous, featureless boxes of concrete block with few windows. Marching orders to Pica and Sullivan were to transform these unfriendly buildings into "the little red school house--a little red bungalow covered in vines," according to Joan Martin, director of Crossroads' elementary division.
It was not an easy task. To break down the big buildings into a scale comfortable for children, the designers divided the square-shaped floor plan into four "quadrants," each of which received a round lobby encircled by a cluster of classrooms and lit with skylights. They also cut numerous windows into the blank walls, covered the concrete block with stucco and painted the buildings pale yellow. In the dark, windowless interior of the buildings, the architects created wide hallways that serve as "streets" connecting the different classroom clusters.
If the result is not literally a little red schoolhouse, Martin called it a "great building" and added that she is particularly pleased with the wide hallways. "There is room for kids, adults, babies, dogs and cats to be in our hallways and be part of the school community," she said.
The conversion was comparatively low cost, compared to new school construction. Crossroads paid $6 million for the land, and another $5.5 million for the conversions. The school spent additional money to build a gym and athletic field, bringing the entire campus to about $17 million.
Although public school districts typically prefer to build new schools rather than rehabilitate old buildings, several school officials now say they are open to the possibility of conversions. They are, said Duwayne Brooks, director of facilities for the state Department of Education, "an option that we support, if that is the best situation to locate the school." The department approves the locations and designs for all new public schools in the state.
Although the state agency follows standards on the size of schools, "we have a lot of flexibility to look at situations in large urban areas," Brooks said. "We will work with [districts] and allow smaller-sized sites." He cited the Pueblo Elementary School, which occupies one wing of the former shopping center Plaza at Indian Hill in Pomona. Recently, the school district bought a large portion of the mall and will create two new elementary schools on the site.
But LAUSD's McConnell said he thinks existing buildings are generally too costly to convert into classroom space. He cited the Field Act, a school-safety statute dating from the 1930s, which requires a high level of structural safety. The cost of buying old buildings and making them earthquake-proof, he said, make most buildings too expensive to adapt for reuse. (LAUSD budgets from $22,000 to $27,000 in construction costs for each student, not including land, which can add another $20,000 per pupil.) Yet the cost of converting buildings into private schools, with comparable seismic standards, can cost about $15,000 per pupil, according to architect Pica.
He added current California building codes require essentially the same level of seismic safety in all school buildings, and that his work on Crossroads and other private schools either meets the code standard for structural safety "or exceeds it."
The cost of time, rather than that of construction, may be one reason why public schools are more costly to build than private schools, according to structural engineer David D.B. Johnson. In public-school construction, he said, "there is generally a bit more bureaucracy, more time is spent in the review of plans and a lot more time is spent in the inspection of the built product."
Pica and others believe that public school districts have outmoded ideas about schools. For example, size is an obvious factor in finding sites for schools. School districts often call for large buildings that can accommodate 1,000 or more pupils, as well as large cafeterias, gyms, libraries and other special spaces. Most private schools, on the other hand, can cut costs and land requirements by opting for small schools and sharing athletic facilities with other institutions. Before Crossroads built a gym, its student athletes took a bus to a nearby gym at a community college. (The basketball team won everal state championships, despite lacking a campus gym.) A K-8 school in Paramount uses a seven-acre city park as its playground. Some public school districts are seeing a positive value in small schools and are building new schools intended for only a few hundred students. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has earmarked $200 million toward building new small schools or restructuring existing schools into smaller units.
Creativity and corner-cutting can provide savings. Rather than build a cafeteria, Crossroads contracted a local caterer to bring in school lunches. New Roads School did not build a library, opting instead to let students walk to nearby Santa Monica Public Library. Architect Sullivan emphasizes that the use of older buildings is good for cities, because recycled buildings help preserve the integrity of streets and neighborhoods.
"It is very enriching [for the city] to have places that are reused over time in different ways, rather than build on virgin land," she said. "It's the sign of the mature city."
©Copyright 2001, Los Angles Times