Doing More With Less

The economic recession, and its  accompanying impact on university endowments, reintroduced the concept of frugality to many capital improvement plans, whether out of necessity or out of an aim to do more with less. As administrators, project managers, and facilities departments grapple with the overlapping and sometimes competing responsibilities to maintain existing facilities; accommodate new programs, functions, and pedagogies; and provide top flight residential, recreational, and academic facilities, some institutions have responded by experimenting with two separate yet highly compatible strategies: adaptive reuse and mixed-use design. designLAB architects of Boston recently collaborated with two celebrated institutions in the Boston area, Wellesley College and Berklee College of Music, to transform single-use buildings into dynamic and flexible spaces that accommodate multiple user groups and activities under one roof. In both cases, repurposing existing buildings was the obvious choice to strengthen the campus fabric, support critical academic and student programs, and accomplish more with less.

A beloved icon on Wellesley College’s pastoral campus, Whitin Observatory, is the long-time home of the astronomy department and houses three telescopes. Through adaptive reuse, the school preserved the splendor of the 1900 Neoclassical building, while equipping it to serve the scientific pursuits of modern astronomers as well as geoscientists, a new cohort of users from the growing environmental studies program.

In contrast, Berklee College of Music is located amidst the color and congestion of the Back Bay neighborhood of Boston. Spread across 21 different buildings, only four of which are wholly occupied by the college, the Berklee campus stretches across several downtown blocks. When a former community health organization vacated a building adjacent to the college’s main artery, Berklee acquired it with the intention to co-locate three departments of their Professional Education Division: music therapy, music business/management, and liberal arts. Because of limited available real estate, a tight budget, and a fast-track schedule, adaptive reuse was the only viable option to achieve this ambitious agenda.

Although each college and university has a unique campus culture, particular campus improvement objectives, and specific constraints, adaptive reuse of existing buildings is often a better option than new construction because it wrings additional value out of an existing asset;for numerous reasons:
  • It repurposes an existing asset, wringing additional value out of an underutilized or outmoded space.
  • It preserves the original campus fabric, maintaining relationships between buildings, view corridors, and traditional paths of circulation;
  • It conserves resources, from capital improvement budgets to construction materials;
  • It conserves coveted green space on suburban campuses; and
  • In urban contexts, it is a commonsense response to limited building stock and the challenges, expense, and unpredictability of new construction in urban contexts.
Similarly, mixed-use design offers s a range of benefits not realized in a single-use facility. These facilities:
  • It reflects a change in pedagogy toward more collaborative and interdisciplinary study,
  • It facilitates a whole-student approach to education that supports learning inside and outside the classroom,
  • It encourages interaction between students and faculty of different disciplines to cross-pollinate ideas, and
  • It optimizes building resources and consolidate support functions.
These advantages make a compelling case for adaptive reuse and mixed-use design, which is validated by the unqualified success of the projects at Wellesley and Berklee as confirmed by representatives from both colleges. Although each project presented unique challenges and differences in programs, sizes, and budgets, designLAB architects approached the design problem both using a holistic process that can be distilled into the following overarching principles.

Design Toward the Building’s Strengths and Away From Its Weaknesses
Located along the northern edge of Wellesley’s campus overlooking the arboretum and botanical gardens, Whitin Observatory was conceived as a classical pavilion in the woods.  Although originally designed in brick, the donor subsequently specified white marble, which coincidentally acknowledges key players instrumental in the building’s construction whose surnames were White, Whiting, and Whitin. Shortly after the building’s completion, the The popularity of the astronomy program made it apparent that the building was not large enough, and thus began a series of no fewer than four renovations during the 20th century. Although early interventions followed the lead of the original building, those dating to the 1960s and 1980s added program space with little attention to the building’s organization or the architectural character of the original.

Following extensive research of the building’s history and numerous conversations with the planning team and end users, designLAB architects understood the historical significance of the observatory, its role in the campus fabric, and the community’s affection for it. Thus, iIt was clear that any intervention should acknowledge, indeed celebrate the architectural artifact. The approach was to peel away the layers that diluted the architectural character, restore period details inside and out, and insert new volumes strategically and in thoughtful dialogue with the original architecture and the forested site.

In contrast to Wellesley, the anonymous brick building envisioned as the home of the Professional Education Division at Berklee College of Music could easily be mistaken for low-rise condominiums or a commercial office suite. Its clear strength is its location. Set one block off humming Massachusetts Avenue, a main thoroughfare that outlines the Berklee campus. In contrast to Wellesley, the anonymous brick building envisioned identified as the home of the Professional Education Division at Berklee College of Music could easily be mistaken for low-rise condominiums or a commercial office suite. Its clear strength is its location. it is both proximal to central campus and yet pulled away from the heavily trafficked street. Despite these obvious advantages, the building had no architectural character or street presence, and it was oriented to a one-way side street. In addition, the original building entrance was not universally accessible.

A relatively simple design decision strengthens ties between this and existing facilities along Massachusetts  Avenue and resolves issues of accessibility. By turning the building’s entrance by 90 degrees and relocating it from the southern edge to the southeastern corner, the entrance now peeks around adjacent buildings, welcoming visitors with a new arrival sequence that draws them off Massachusetts Avenue and new steps from the street incorporate a system of ramps to enable easy access to the building. This move capitalizes on the building’s relatively quiet location amidst the din of the city while contributing to a cohesive and welcoming campus experience.

Strategically Reinforce the Project’s Central Goals
Once an attitude had been developed for the restoration and renovation of Whitin Observatory, the design team began the process of editing and distilling the building down to its essential elements. Where earlier stucco-clad additions had attempted to imitate the original building, it was evident that but these obscured its beauty and overwhelmed its relatively modest scale. In response, designLAB architects determined that all additions, both past and present, should have the same exterior expression, and that the new volumes should complement the original while making their own architectural statement.

Addressing this two-fold challenge meant selecting a material for the exterior envelope that was respectful of the original design intent and the sylvan landscape, yet left the design team room to editorialize. A range of materials was explored, and the team , including masonry and metal, but these were ultimately rejected because of their scale and hefty materiality against the delicate marble façade. Eventually the design team determined that eventually selected acid-etched glass because was the appropriate material because its transparency and lightness complement the original building without overwhelming it. In certain qualities of light, these glass panes shimmer in the sun or reflect the surrounding woodlands. At night, the glass reveals glimpses of the original building that are embedded in the addition.

Where the goal at Wellesley was to preserve and update a prized campus landmark, the challenge at Berklee presented was to create a branded Berklee building on a tight budget and an abbreviated eight-month construction schedule. To achieve this ambitious goal, designLAB identified cost-saving measures that reinforce Berklee’s image as an innovative, urban university. Although the building’s mechanical systems needed to brought up to code with new air handling units, the architects proposed controlling renovation costs by working with existing wall configurations and ductwork layouts, which shaved an expensive line item from the budget and time off the construction schedule. The design team then stripped common areas back to structural frame to expose the building’s infrastructure and ductwork, creating an industrial loft aesthetic. This design decision reduces costs while creating the illusion of greater ceiling height in the long, narrow corridors. Sleek full-height light fixtures set into incisions in corridor walls highlight existing concrete floors, up-light the ceilings to reinforce a perceived sense of height, and eliminate the need for additional down-light fixtures. This reductive rather than additive approach enabled architects to imbue the unremarkable spec building with a playful experimental character consistent with Berklee’s identity, on a very modest budget.

Leverage Opportunities to Enhance the Building’s Significance
As a result of earlier piecemeal additions, circulation within Whitin Observatory was highly compromised. Classrooms and offices shoehorned onto the original structure made it impossible to navigate the observatory without interrupting a class or walking around on the outside. In order for astronomy and geosciences to comfortably co-exist, the design needed to add program space while simultaneously addressing congested circulation.

Consistent with the goal of restoring the building’s character and reinforcing its architectural significance,In response, architects peeled away a lecture hall and offices on the east elevation and to expose the original marble façade, which was largely intact and in good condition beneath the interior plaster walls. To address circulation challenges, designLAB wrapped the historic east elevation building, which overlooks the arboretum, in a glass-enclosed, clerestory-lit corridor that leads to new offices and a specialty classroom for geoscience on the north elevation, as well as a reconfigured lecture hall and support spaces for astronomy to the south. Walking along the gallery allows students to experience the building façade’s exquisite detail and the natural beauty of the arboretum as if in an enclosed porch. Along the passage, original window openings are repurposed as curio cabinets; artifacts and collections that the astronomy department once kept in storage are now on display. The journey culminates in the new multipurpose classroom, which is adorned by the observatory’s original entrance, a copper-roofed barrel-vaulted portico. Located on the north elevation, this entrance was little used previously because it required visitors to walk around to the back of the building. By embedding it within the sleek specialty classroom, the design creates a dialogue between past and present, and it provides an audience that appreciates the entrance every day.

As the Berklee building had little intrinsic character, the design team looked for opportunities to develop its identity. The decision to reposition the building entrance to address Massachusetts Avenue also enabled the architects to reclaim 300 sq. ft. of space from a former exterior vestibule, which they suggested transforming into a café. Located just inside the new main entrance, the café invites students to study, work on their laptops, or people-watch at bar-height counters that line the south- and east-facing windows. Its centralized location also encourages “chance” meetings.

However, the The decision to orient the entrance towards Massachusetts Avenue also connected it to the upper deck of an adjacent sub-grade parking garage—not an attractive view. The design team’s A novel solution transforms this eyesore into a campus attraction. designLAB replaced a few parking spaces with a A “pocket park” replaces a few parking spaces, that offering creates students a pleasant space to gather outside. Once a swath of concrete, this space became the University’s first and only campus green. A new handicap-accessible ramp outlines the edge of the park, elegantly negotiating the change in grade. Both the indoor café and the park are found spaces not included in the original program, which were realized within the original budget.

Let the process determine the results.

Co-locate Programs to Their Mutual Advantage
In the current economy, it is challenging to marshal resources and buy-in for significant capital improvement projects that benefit a select few within an institution. Richard French, professor of astrophysics and astronomy, director of Whitin Observatory, and dean of Academic Affairs, understood from the beginning the need to promote the observatory as an underutilized science facility and a campus-wide asset in order in order to secure the funds necessary to preserve and improve the building.

“Adapting the observatory to include flexible laboratory spaces and additional classrooms both for astronomy and the geosciences program enhances the building’s value to Wellesley and extends its useful life,” French remarked. “This programmatic pairing is particularly advantageous, since geosciences needed better access to the arboretum than is available from the science center, and they use the classrooms and labs primarily during the day, where astronomy needs them at night.” By staggering their use of the building’s resources, astronomy and geosciences comfortably occupy just 10,500 sq. ft. Cohabitating also enables both programs to benefit from astronomy’s most recent hire, a planetary astronomer who specializes in the geology of rocky planets.

Professor French reports that redeveloping Whitin Observatory as a mixed-use building has paid off in ways they never expected. Students recently started a new organization, A.G.E.S, an acronym for Astronomy, Geosciences, and Environmental Sciences, which holds weekly meetings at the observatory to facilitate knowledge-sharing between disciplines. As a result of occupying the same building, astronomy and geosciences faculty are now well-informed about each other’s research, which has resulted in the creation of new interdisciplinary course offerings, including Planetary Climates, a class cross-listed in astronomy and geosciences that exposes students to different theories of climate change and introduces them to another discipline. “Whitin Observatory is celebrated by the college as a model of how to renovate existing buildings and acknowledge their history, while making them contemporary and interdisciplinary,” said French. “Whitin Observatory is no longer just an astronomy building; it’s a college resource.”

Out of sheer necessity, Berklee’s new building was always conceived as mixed-use, since multiple departments of the Professional Education Division needed a permanent home. However, it was not clear how these diverse programs would harmoniously co-exist in just 20,000 sq. ft.,  over three levels, particularly since the program also called for the inclusion of eight classrooms and, in addition to offices for offices for a host of student services and student-run organizations. Although the College’s original plan called for locating the student organizations on the same level as their departmental sponsor, designLAB architects convinced Berklee to pull these groups out and locate them on the first floor along a “main street” adjacent to the café. Rather than sequestering FUSION, the literary magazine, on the same floor as Liberal Arts or isolating Heavy Rotations, Berklee’s music label, in the Music Business/Management department. This “main street” arrangement forges new connections between these organizations and their members, and it inspires curious students to learn more by providing an introduction to their activities.

This design decision transforms the building from an academic environment into a community space that contributes to the energy and vitality of Berklee.

“The building’s mixed-use design has made it a hub of activity on campus,” noted Darla Hanley, dean of the Professional Education Division. “Faculty and students interact in the classrooms and in the dedicated program spaces such as the Center for Writing and English as a Second Language or the Music Therapy Resource Room. Students have many reasons to visit the building in addition to taking classes, whether to study in the park, meet a professor in the café, work with a tutor, or attend an evening lecture or event. It’s a beautiful addition to our campus with its amenities and central location.”

Reframe: Let the process determine the results.

Obstacles Confronted During Design or Construction Are often Obstacles as Opportunities in Disguise
When architects bravely peeled earlier additions from the original Georgian façade at Whitin Observatory, they knew it was possible that some original marble would be damaged or missing. When they removed the 1962 lecture hall from the original Whitin Observatory building, they discovered that a large section of marble was gone and the area was in-filled with concrete block.  At this point in construction, it was neither practical nor financially feasible to obtain marble, and even if this was possible, it would read as a “patch” on the building, rather than blending seamlessly. Instead of sourcing matching marble, which would have delayed construction and been prohibitively expensive, they saw this hiccup as an opportunity to offer a contemporary response to the building’s condition. The glass-enclosed gallery wraps this portion of the original façade, so the solution did not need to withstand the elements; rather, it needed to contribute to the user’s reading and understanding of the observatory. In response, designLAB framed in openings to echo four windows that once punctuated the building façade and , but instead of inserting reproduction windows, the architects mounted two massive glass panels to , each 7-ft.-6-in. by 6-ft. 2-in., in front of the openings, masking out their original silhouettes and creating display cases. By expressing the original windows in an abstract way, this treatment is consistent with the design team’s goal to celebrate the original building without rigid historicism offers a contemporary response to the building’s condition.

At Berklee, a strategic cost-saving measure created complications. Although the choice to use existing wall configurations and ductwork layouts shaved time and money off the project, it presented a challenge when designing the building’s eight classrooms. Although Berklee has campus standards for room configurations, but it was not possible to adhere to these specifications and utilize the building’s basic layout. designLAB architects resolved this conflict by initiating initiated an inclusive design process with the building’s end users to determine classroom configurations specific to this space. To test and verify layouts, designLAB took over a vacant space at Berklee and, using duct tape, traced the dimensions of a classroom, adding chairs and a cardboard cutout of a piano. This allowed faculty to experiment with which side of the room they would teach from and which side would contain the built-in technology.

Projects of this schedule and budget do not typically allow for collaboration with end users. However, involving faculty in the design process improved the functionality of the classrooms by creating a custom response to the parameters set by the building.

The Core Value: Collaboration

Underpinning all of these principles is the core value of collaboration. All capital improvement projects involve balancing competing priorities and frequently require sacrifice. An energetic partnership between the client, architect, owner’s rep, and contractor ensures that all design considerations are evaluated thoroughly according to how well they serve the institution’s immediate and long-term goals.

Each building presents a unique set of opportunities and liabilities, and every college and university has distinct values to uphold, philosophy to practice, and programs to support. The solution will be original each time; the constants in any successful project are robust relationships and a common goal.

Robert Miklos, FAIA, is the founder of designLAB architects, based in Boston.

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