Rethinking K-12 Renovations

Paul Johnston, RA, REFP, Sr. Project Manager, King + King Architects

Our region is home to many K-12 school buildings exceeding 60 years old. Often these early to mid-20th century structures are still in use and have encountered few upgrades. These facilities were designed around an outdated educational model preparing students for a workforce that largely no longer exists. As education philosophies and delivery methods adjust to our modern world, all too often instruction is occurring in physical spaces that do not sufficiently accommodate or support it. Teachers and students are seen using hallways, closets, and even obsolete locker rooms for a variety of crucial individual and small group activities that do not fit in the traditional classroom.

Upstate NY school districts rely on State Building Aid as a significant funding source for capital improvement projects. In most cases, aid is maximized through renovations; rarely can new replacement buildings or significant additions be justified due to flat or declining student enrollment (a major factor in aid formulas).

As districts are steered toward renovations, existing building layout and structural elements must be evaluated and often can pose challenges to the redesign. Limitations such as long narrow classroom wings, circulation and exit requirements, fire-rated walls, and structural systems are hurdles to significantly rethinking and reorganizing the floor plan.

However, as school districts strive to go beyond just recreating 21st century versions of their 1950’s classroom wings, they are finding creative ways to overcome these obstacles to provide school facilities better fit for student learning.

The North Syracuse Bear Road Elementary School is currently under construction, and as part of a full ‘gut renovation’ of the single-story school, the building is being upgraded with a sprinkler system. This fire suppression system takes the place of fire-rated walls at classrooms and corridors, allowing for a greater amount of design flexibility. Classrooms can now have larger amounts of interior glass, open doors, and stronger connections to adjacent areas. This allows students to spread out into a variety of open and enclosed small group work areas beyond the classroom, while still allowing teacher supervision and students remaining connected to the larger group.

The Vernon-Verona-Sherrill School District is nearing the completion of a significant Middle School renovation, one which required the demolition and rebuild of an entire single-story wing on the original footprint. The existing bearing wall construction did not allow for the flexible/ adaptable team-teaching environment required by their STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, the Arts and Mathematics) teams. This became an opportunity to address an area of the building beyond its useful life and provide unique learning spaces specifically designed around team-teaching and students working in teams. This wing was also uniquely situated to allow direct access to each STEAM team area without the original corridor. This recaptured floorspace, equal to the size of another classroom, allows larger communal work areas that can accommodate each 120-student team.

Finally, the Romulus Central School District recently completed an interior renovation of its High School located on the 2nd floor of the original 1930’s portion of their K-12 building. Existing rooms were too small, isolated, and did not promote the District’s cross curricular team-teaching approach. To remedy this, classrooms were enlarged and, in several zones, completely removed allowing the corridor to gain back this additional space. Classrooms were organized on either side of these enlarged corridor nodes. The added double doors create a strong visual and spatial connection across these classrooms and communal break-out spaces. Reorganizing these spaces encourages the integration of disciplines like Math-Science and English-Social Studies as teachers, students, and subject matter collaborate together.

Finding strategic ways to better utilize areas like corridors, for more than just circulation, is a key component to breaking the limitations of ‘double-loaded’ corridor and provides more adaptive and supportive spaces for student learning moving forward. 

For more information on rethinking K-12 renovations, you may contact Paul Johnston and King + King Architects at 315-671-2400, email or visit online at