Reclaiming Rec Space
(10/08/2010)

For decades, multipurpose gymnasiums at elementary schools and high schools have served as the heart of the educational facility, often providing space for not only physical education, but for such diverse functions as a cafeteria, gathering area, and a stage for school performances.

Increasingly, school officials are realizing the benefit of having individual rooms to better serve these functions. 

Architectural firm Wight & Co., of Darien, Ill., has provided redesign solutions for the outdated gyms of several Chicago-area schools. Kevin Havens, senior vice president and director of design, and Bradley Paulsen, AIA, vice president of business development and K-12 education practice leader, recently spoke with School Construction News about some of these projects.

Q: What typically happens with these old gymnasiums?

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Havens: What we found with school districts in the Chicago area is that older elementary, middle and high schools frequently house gymnasium spaces that were designed 30 years ago. These outdated gymnasiums are typically too small for physical education activities, largely because the whole phys ed philosophy has evolved from a purely recreational program into a life-fitness type of education.

These spaces are also typically taxed with multiple functions, such as serving as the lunchroom or, with the addition of a stage, a place to present drama and music productions. The truth is, however, that these rooms perform poorly for any one of those functions.

Q: Why is that?

Havens: Well, because they are too small. They lack certain technologies. Typically, acoustics were never considered in construction. Educational programs today are just more sophisticated than what they were when these gymnasiums were originally built.

In many of these schools, the outdated gyms are not appendages on the outside of the building but instead serve as core spaces around which the facility was built. So expansion or demolition is not really a viable option. What we’re seeing is that instead of being albatrosses, these spaces are becoming opportunities for meeting the needs of the school.

For example, the old gym can be replaced by building a new, more adequately sized gymnasium on the exterior of the school and constructing a multipurpose room, or rooms, that can better serve as food-service venues. In turn, the old gym space can be remodeled and subdivided into classrooms for academic, computer technology, or special education purposes.

Q: How do you typically approach these gym repurposing projects?

Paulsen: Typically what happens at the very beginning of a project is district officials present a series of needs they have. One of those needs is often special education functions for individual or small-group instruction. A lot of itinerant teachers, like psychologists, social workers, and ESL educators, have to go from school to school, often because the facilities they work in were built in the 60s and 70s, and they were not designed with those positions in mind. Because of new educational requirements that require these positions, schools often force these functions into the corners of hallways, janitor’s closets, or former computer rooms — small spaces that are just making do.

What often happens is the schools don’t see the opportunity in front of them — the opportunity to build a new gymnasium and a new cafeteria or lunchroom that adequately supports the right types of instructional needs and physical education and wellness programs of today. Then they can use these old gymnasiums to house other important programs. So really, the design process starts by examining the whole variety of needs of the school, whether those needs are space for special education, administration offices, drama productions, or other programs.

Havens: It’s interesting — for every school there’s a different solution. It’s not like there is this cookie cutter process. It’s really like Brad said, sitting down and discovering what are the unmet needs in the school and then looking for ways of making these larger, column-free spaces really work productively for the educational environment of today, rather than what they were purposed for 30 or 40 years ago.

Q: For the projects you’ve done, are they typically part of a larger redesign and expansion?

Havens: They often have to involve some kind of replacement of the gym, because that’s space they use. You can’t remove a gym space and not give the school any room for recreational or physical education activities. So yes, the projects we’ve done have involved either a reconfiguration or an expansion of the building.

For example, at Burr Ridge Middle School in Burr Ridge, Ill., we did a very large expansion and replacement of much of their classroom space. In the process of doing that, we took this small, old gym space and turned it into the new band room. Adjacent to that room we created a tiered-floor multimedia assembly space. Both of these were spaces that Burr Ridge needed very much, but we realized we didn’t have to build anything brand new because the gym, which had a high ceiling height, was a perfect space to put those functions into.

Q: How much renovating do these facilities typically require to make them useful spaces?

Paulsen: What you basically have is an open box that you can infill with walls, doors, ceilings, and electrical and HVAC systems.

Havens: From there it can get a little more complicated. For example, if there is a raised stage area you might be able to do some demolition to expand the floor space of the old gym, creating more activity space. So far we’ve been discussing elementary and junior high buildings, but the same opportunities exist in high schools. In high schools, gyms actually have a significant floor-to-ceiling height, to such a degree that you can insert a mezzanine floor that cuts the gym in half, giving you a double-decker space. We did this a few years ago at Lemont High School in Lemont, Ill. We took an old gym that was inadequate for physical education purposes and, by inserting a mezzanine floor, we were able to provide an expansion of the cafeteria on the ground floor. On the upper level we added in a band rehearsal room. So we literally doubled the floor area of what they had originally and added in a new band space that the school didn’t have previously. Plus, Lemont High got a new field house, which significantly improved their athletic programs.

Q: How can you build green features into these outdated spaces?

Paulsen: By the very nature of re-using what the school already has makes the spaces sustainable. Rather than building new areas for whatever functions the school is seeking, we are recycling what they already have. At Lemont High, rather than building additions to house a new cafeteria or a new band room, we put in a new floor. They already had the walls and roof.

Of course any of the materials we use are usually recyclable. So there are lots of opportunities for making the space green, but at the core it already is a sustainable solution.

Q: Could you describe the project you did at York Community High School in Elmhurst, Ill., and how you turned the gymnasium into an “experimental” theater?

Havens: York High School was a significant expansion. This project took place from 2000 to 2004. It entailed demolition of about 50 percent of the old high school, which was kind of a dysfunctional patchwork of additions that were added beginning in 1920 and going forward to present day. After we demolished certain areas, we rebuilt those spaces in an architectural style sympathetic to the 1920s original style then added more space for academics and athletics.

At York High there was an old interior gym that was referred to as the girl’s gym. Much like the other spaces we’ve described already, the space was small and dysfunctional because of its size. However, it made the perfect experimental theater because it was column free, it had a high ceiling, and it was located directly behind the auditorium so it could share the theater’s technical studio. By hanging lighting grid work and tracking for curtains, we were able to do a black-box studio that really became the classroom for teaching drama.

It was a real find, because in York they had no additional space to build such an area and they really didn’t have the funds to build a theater expansion from the ground up.

Q: What are some of the major challenges to doing a project like that?

Havens: Whenever we do these gym repurposing projects, we are typically working in the middle of an active school building, as the project sometimes extends over a summer period. So there’s a safety issue that really has to be thought through to ensure construction won’t disrupt school operations.

Q: Can you discuss challenges to the Romeoville High School project that you completed in Romeoville, Ill.?

Paulsen: That project was similar to what we did at Lemont High School. Part of it included building a new field house. Doing so allowed us to take this inadequate auxiliary gym and put in a second floor, which created more space for health and wellness programs.

Havens: They had a pretty popular ROTC program at Romeoville High that really didn’t have a home before. So that program was able to occupy one of the levels in this mezzanine insertion that we put in.

Paulsen: We created more floor space by essentially slicing this gym horizontally to create a second floor.

Q: How was the Mill Street Elementary School project in Naperville, Ill., unique?

Havens: Mill Street was a textbook opportunity, if you will, at the elementary school level in that it was an interior gym and it was literally in the core of the building. Additionally, it was directly adjacent to the library, which was kind of ironic because it was a quiet space next to a noisy space. By turning that old gym into computer labs and special education and small group project rooms, it actually expanded the library’s services. And, being at the core of the building, it was an ideal spot for all the grades — kindergarten through fifth — to access those support learning opportunities.

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