Skip to main content
skip to content Français Search
Start of main content

To raze or to renovate? That is the question.

What should an institution do when it comes time for a new student residence?

By Amber Luther

One of the biggest challenges facing campuses today is whether to raze existing student housing facilities and build new ones, or renovate and extend their useful lives. While renovation can seem like the more cost-effective option, some institutions have discovered that it’s possible to construct an entirely new facility for the same cost as renovating an old one, and with fewer challenges and aggravation. But cost alone often isn’t, and should not be, the only deciding factor. Trends of the day as well as the campus culture also have an important influence.

During the 1960s and ‘70s, American campuses rushed to accommodate the sudden spike in population due to Baby Boomers’ arrival on the scene. As a result, the trend was toward the quick-to-construct “brutalist” residence halls—characterized by double-loaded corridors, large, ganged bathrooms at the end of the hall, and little or no lounge or laundry space. Frequently, these new halls took the place of older facilities that may have been considered “sacred” to the campus by today’s standards.

Building on History

For institutions wishing to preserve their legacy buildings, cultural influences are powerful. But renovation can bring specific and sometimes costly considerations. Are there hazardous materials that require costly abatement? Can seismic and life safety requirements be addressed without compromising the existing structural grid? Can required ADA upgrades be achieved? Can the building be effectively adapted for 21st century technology and energy and water efficiency?

Even so, institutions with historic roots that play a key role in the campus culture frequently opt to renovate even if razing and new construction might appear, on paper, to be the better choice.

For example, in 2013, Stantec completed a campus master plan and housing study for the University of Mary Washington (UMW) in Fredericksburg, Virginia. Located near the sites of some of the Civil War’s most historic battles, the campus exudes reverence for the past. This culture informed our recommendation to renovate, rather than raze, 15 of its 18 residence halls.

The decision was also buttressed by an in-depth housing study, and UMW’s Strategic Plan, which emphasized maintaining a “small liberal arts” education and culture, as well as the campus’ historic preservation plan. Ultimately, UMW reached a compromise, constructing several higher-density residence halls to accommodate student housing shortages while renovating most of the campus’ older yet treasured residence halls.

Our experience at Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania resulted in a different resolution. According to multiple housing studies, about 13% of students were seeking leased housing, on and off campus. Few affordable options existed for students to find housing off-campus, creating a strong market for new student housing development. Coupled with the fact that the campus was housing only 41% of its enrollment in institution-owned housing, Bloomsburg University could easily justify constructing new facilities, totaling approximately 1,500 beds.

Because the main campus had limited open space to build, razing existing buildings was inevitable. In addition, most of student housing had been constructed during the boom time in the ‘60s and ‘70s and was not considered sacred to the campus. Building new housing also allowed Bloomsburg to increase variety; more than 65% of existing beds were traditional dormitory-style with the rest apartment-style.

Stantec ultimately recommended razing several of Bloomsburg University’s existing dormitory-style residence halls to make room for new facilities that will contain a mix of suite-, hotel-, and dormitory-style housing on the main campus while continuing to offer students a variety of cost options. The new facilities will also give the campus the opportunity to reorganize outdoor space on their land-locked Lower Campus to provide more recreation areas near the freshmen and sophomore housing.

Questions to Consider
Other considerations in the raze or renovate debate include: Where will displaced students go during renovation? If cost is the main driver, what effect does that have on construction quality and building life expectancy? If the school adds more beds, will it need more on-campus dining space? Will it impact summer programs that use student housing? If privatization is being considered, how will it integrate with institution-owned housing? How will the campus-wide mix of bed types be affected? What population will be served?

The decision will be different for each institution. It should, however, be strongly informed by an institution’s strategic vision and campus culture, not cost alone. If historic roots exist, in most cases, a combination of renovating and new construction may be the answer to maintaining the campus character while accommodating student housing needs.

University of Mary Washington

comments powered by Disqus

View A Project Near You

Find Stantec projects near you
End of main content To top