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Breathing new life into old campus buildings

Rather than building new, refurbishing old structures saves money and preserves heritage.


Laurentian university’s Alphonse Raymond Building, named for a Jesuit Father, has stood for years as an imposing monolith on a hill at the eastern end of the sprawling Sudbury, Ont. campus. It was built in the 1960s in the so-called Brutalist style, a boxy, precast concrete building lacking light and intimacy.

But quite apart from the aesthetics, it had another shortcoming: the building contained so much asbestos that Laurentian officials seriously considered simply demolishing it. “A difficult building,” says Brad Parkes, Laurentian’s executive director for facilities services. He points to a third deficiency: accessibility. While the building had a capacious theatre, students in wheelchairs had to be shunted in through a rear freight elevator. “We were taking away people’s dignity,” he says.

Some universities regard such decrepit architectural monuments as an opportunity to start afresh, drawing up plans to build new state-of-the-art facilities that feature contemporary design and enjoy the backing of a major capital campaign. Laurentian, however, decided to give this unloved asset a second lease on life. Indeed, when the Alphonse Raymond Building reopened this fall, following a year-long closure, students and staff would likely have been pleasantly surprised by an ambitious facelift that has created spacious new common areas, brought loads of natural light into the building, and recast its gloomy interiors with wood surfaces and brighter colours. The front entrance has been lowered to street level and accessibility obstacles have been eliminated. And, the building is no longer a health trap.

Laurentian's Alphonse Raymond building.
Laurentian’s Alphonse Raymond building.

“There are many things happening in that building,” says Sydney Browne, a principal at Diamond Schmitt Architects, in Toronto, which oversaw the rehabilitation project. Diamond Schmitt has a long history of design work for postsecondary education institutions, including not just shiny new buildings but also complex renovations and heritage reconstructions. Recent examples among its lengthy list of rehab projects is the imaginative addition to the Old Main Building at Thompson Rivers University, and the recent transformation of a 19th-century factory into Brock University’s Marilyn I. Walker School of Fine and Performing Arts, which opened its doors in September.

TRU exterior, photo by Mathias Fast.
TRU Old Main exterior, photo by Mathias Fast.
TRU Old Main reading room, photo by Ed White.
TRU Old Main reading room, photo by Ed White.

At Laurentian, the remake of the Alphonse Raymond Building is merely one piece of the university’s far-ranging $51-million campus renewal program that will see a total of seven existing structures rehabilitated and revitalized. The program, which grew out of a 2012-2017 strategic plan, encompasses 23,000 square metres of existing campus space, and ranges from overhauling entire buildings to more surgical interventions, such as refurbishing individual classrooms. The construction began last year and will take until 2017 to complete. “We wanted to build in, not out,” says Mr. Parkes. “If we were going to build that much [new] space, it would have cost hundreds of millions of dollars.”

Among university and college facilities managers, it’s no secret that Canada’s postsecondary education institutions are not only aging rapidly, but many are showing signs of distress. According to a 2014 study by the Canadian Association of University Business Officers, or CAUBO, Canadian campuses have accumulated about $8.4 billion worth of deferred maintenance.

Many buildings, the report noted, date back to the campus construction boom of the 1960s and ’70s, but those structures have not aged well. Mechanical systems are failing more frequently. Roofs are leaking. And, as with the Alphonse Raymond building, they often fail to comply with contemporary air quality and accessibility legislation. The study also noted that Canadian campuses are spending about $500 million to $750 million per year on “stewardship” – i.e., routine upkeep – a figure that the study suggested should probably be twice that amount in order to keep buildings in a state of good repair.

The evaluation had other bracing revelations: compared to a 2000 study on deferred maintenance, forbodingly titled “A Point of No Return,” the accumulated maintenance backlog more than doubled over the course of a dozen years, partially due to better reporting, but also because of continued neglect. The latest CAUBO assessment predicts that the aging of the ’60s-era campus buildings will be more acutely felt over the next decade, with a quarter of built space at universities reaching the point where building systems become so outdated that they are almost unusable.

“Universities really need to turn their attention to addressing this problem,” says Duncan Watt, Carleton University’s vice-president of finance and administration. If older buildings continue to be neglected, he says, universities may need to shutter them. “It’s not a viable option to say we’re going to kick this ball down the road.”

Some universities are responding to the situation. CAUBO found that, between 2009 and 2013, there was “a significant amount of focused renovation” representing about 850,000 square-metres of floor space across Canada, compared to 1.4 million square-metres of new construction.

While refreshing older buildings may be less costly, the challenges of projects like Laurentian’s ambitious modernization plan can be formidable. Facilities managers have to work intimately with registrars, program administrators and architects to stage the renovations, plan closures, and find temporary digs for classrooms, offices and labs. Development officials, meanwhile, don’t have much luck attracting philanthropic support for outlays such as new furnaces and ventilation systems. As Mr. Parkes says, “It’s not something that’s appealing to donors.”

When Sydney Browne of Diamond Schmitt began working with Laurentian, she drew heavily on the company’s involvement in groundbreaking campus renewal projects launched within the past decade, particularly a major renovation at McGill University. “The lessons learned at McGill were essential to [our] work on any of these [other] campuses,” she says.

McGill’s facilities renewal campaign focused on confronting the deferred maintenance issues associated with some of the university’s oldest structures, among them several 200-year-old limestone mansions that housed bits and pieces of programs in fields like medicine, which would best be consolidated and run out of better-equipped facilities. Ms. Browne says Diamond Schmitt had to work with the university to undertake a far-ranging space planning exercise. “You pick the buildings with the strongest architectural character to fit the program, and that’s how you spend your budget,” she says. “It’s almost like setting up a matrix of needs and characteristics. You need to understand a lot about the whole place.”

With Laurentian, Ms. Browne and Mr. Parkes’ team determined what was missing on campus, and then looked for retrofit and renovation opportunities where they could tick off several boxes on their “needs” list within a single building. For example, the campus lacked a “front door,” so the renewal involved creating a new connecting space between two existing structures that will serve as a student common space, an indoor waiting area for transit users and a venue for an indigenous learning centre.

Other universities that have awoken to the risks of deferred maintenance have adopted similarly systematic strategies, both with ongoing repairs and more far-reaching revitalization projects. Jeff Lamb, Dalhousie University’s assistant vice-president of facilities management, says his administration has likewise pursued a policy of increasing budget allocations for maintenance and renovation by meticulously prioritizing projects according to need. The repair backlog is estimated at $350 million.

Dalhousie, Mr. Lamb says, has tracked the condition of its buildings and their mechanical systems for many years, but adds that the software for evaluating and timing retrofits has become more sophisticated as the university recruited specialized consultants to do this kind of work. Dalhousie now relies on a commercial tracking system that generates a benchmark known as the “facilities condition index.” The index is a ratio of deferred maintenance to replacement cost for individual buildings, and can be used to identify facilities in pressing need of attention, as well as those that may not be worth saving.

Seven years ago, Dalhousie embarked on a campus master planning process that identified the need for additional space and focused on buildings which had high facilities condition index scores, indicating the highest priority projects. However, a $250 million capital campaign fell short of its target, forcing administrators to scale back the scope of greenfield projects, such as a new engineering building. Despite this setback, Mr. Lamb points out that the renewal program followed through on significant upgrades and renovations of existing facilities, such as the university’s dental clinics, which received a $26 million refurbishment.

Undeterred by others’ experiences, the University of Regina has made its massive revitalization plan the focus of its capital campaign this year. The university’s College Avenue Campus Renewal project, which has been the institution’s top fundraising priority for the year, aims to refurbish the oldest part of the campus, including several heritage buildings. The 30-month project includes renovations to classrooms, lecture halls and performance space, as well as a large concourse with common-area seating for up to 300 students.

According to the CAUBO study, some campuses with a high concentration of buildings of roughly the same vintage – especially 1960s structures – face more difficulty financing their facilities renewal efforts because the aging issues materialize in a concentrated period. Yet Mr. Watt at Carleton, an institution which saw major campus development in the 1960s and ’70s, has managed to find the money. Thanks to a strong balance sheet and healthy reserves, Carleton has been able to draw on its annual operating budget and some provincial government refurbishment grants to finance several renewal projects, starting with a pair of large buildings – the Tory Building and the MacOdrum Library – that were stripped down to the beams and completely rebuilt in the past three years.

More recently, the university’s board approved a $140-million budget over 10 years to address other pressing capital improvements. This should “significantly reduce the level of deferred maintenance on our campus,” says Mr. Watt.

Money, it should be said, isn’t the only hurdle with rehabilitation efforts. As with Laurentian’s Alphonse Raymond complex, structures from the 1960s and ’70s are often difficult to renovate and require extensive internal refurbishment to add contemporary elements now regarded as standard: lots of natural light, generous common areas, good seating, warm finishes and surfaces. Ms. Browne adds that, as designers, Diamond Schmitt also tries to respect the original architecture, a goal that can be achieved by carefully excising years of ad hoc renovations.

The modernization process, in Laurentian’s case, also sought to deliver on the university’s long-standing commitment to sustainability. As an example, Ms. Browne points to the introduction of natural ventilation in the Parker Building, an 11-storey concrete tower that will become part of the campus’s new gateway. That move reduces energy use, and thus cost, while improving air quality. “The whole project is about chipping away at these goals in a sustainable way.”

The project also required a lot of creativity. Mr. Parkes and other senior administrators had to problem-solve their way through a process that included 400 public meetings, extensive program and space allocation planning, and a detailed examination of the opportunity to revitalize, in ways large and small, a campus that doesn’t expect signifcant enrolment growth or relatively much in the way of philanthropic support ($7 million came from benefactors). Ms. Browne came away from the project impressed. “It’s so good to see a client who is thinking about their campus as a whole, compared to institutions trying to reinvigorate campuses through expansion,” she says. “They take the mindset that you work with what you have.”

John Lorinc
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  1. Linda M. Ambrose / November 3, 2015 at 11:04

    Historian wades in: Alphonse Raymond, for whom the building at Laurentian University is named, was not “a prominent Quebec businessman.” Father Raymond was a Jesuit, born in Verner, ON, east of Sudbury. He was a champion of Roman Catholic and French-Canadian rights in northeastern Ontario. President of Sacred Heart College from 1952-1959, and first president of the University of Sudbury. That’s why the building is named for him. For more on Laurentian’s founders and our history, please see our 2010 book, Laurentian University: A History, McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2010.

  2. Prof. Jack Martin Miller / November 4, 2015 at 20:24

    Refurbashing old structures, sometimes but not always saves money. A 50 year old building designed with the poured concrete brutalism of the 1960s are oftn found to have many steps into classrooms, narrow doors through structural poured concrete etc. With the proviso that in 10 years, by 2025 we must meet the new requirements for accessibility, I can think of many University buildings around the province that cannot under any circumstance come close to meeting the new code requirements, let alsone the current OBC requirements. These buildings will NOT BE GRANDFATHERED as are current renovations. Even 35 years ago when wewererequired by the Province to renovate space to accommodate the Scieces on our main campus with the building of 45,000 sq, ft of new space and the rennovation of 70,000 sq. ft. of old space to provide 25,000 sq ft of science space, much of it for offices, We could have built the 25,000 sq. ft of new space more cheaply. Today the rennovation costs when structural concrete, inadequate ventilation, ductwork and other VAC and related services, and aspestos remediation are included, new would be cheaper, I would suggest that in as much as 50% of our spaces, new space would be cheaper than rennovation, unless you are looking at flat classrooms and offices, but for the latter, windows that open may be a union demand. Specialzed serviced space is prohibitive in rennovation.