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Keep Old Schools Standing


The wrecking ball isn’t the only solution for renovation and expansion needs.

Overcladding and a new parapet ended water ingress and restored Public School 88 in Queens, NY, to its former glory. Photo courtesy RKTB Architects

By Albert Aronov, AIA, RKTB Architects, P.C.

Public school buildings often stand at the center of our communities, geographically and architecturally, serving a range of community purposes while supporting the next generation’s education. Time, weather, and deferred maintenance can leave K-12 districts with major challenges, however. Another perennial concern is student-population growth.

Cost-effective and sustainable strategies for addressing these factors involve upgrading older school buildings with energy-wise envelope improvements and investing in smart, context-sensitive expansions. The following examples show how the School Construction Authority (SCA) of New York City kept two aging schools standing.

Façade overcladding. Many cities have school buildings dating to the beginning of the 20th century, built with solid-masonry-bearing walls. Many are leaking. The resulting degradation can severely damage brickwork, window openings, and plaster classroom walls. For these structures, removing original masonry usually has a negative impact on structural integrity. In many cases, adding a new façade layer and vapor barrier can make the buildings watertight and durable, and even bring back their original luster.

Our firm pioneered an approach to restore original architectural features lost over time while protecting educational spaces for Public School 88, a classic 1907 facility in Queens, NY. Interior spaces suffered from moisture damage. Over time, original parapets had been replaced, eliminating cornices and neoclassical detail. In 2011, the project team tested exterior walls and parapets to confirm the extent of water ingress, including a look at original headers, wood window jambs, and interior clay tile finished with plaster. It was the ideal candidate for overcladding. The existing wall could remain, with an exterior parge coat and moisture barrier, followed by a drainage mat and new face-brick cladding to match the original.

The result goes beyond stabilizing the structure. At its base, new cast stone replicates removed original stone, preserving the profile. New windowsills include flashing and durable sub-sill pans. Over rehabilitated existing steel we installed look-alike cast-stone headers. The original parapet, which had been stripped of its original character, was replaced. On the replacement parapet hangs a new ornamental cornice of glass-fiber-reinforced concrete (GFRC). In this way, the school, and the entire neighborhood, reclaim the legacy of a community landmark.

Public School 70Q accommodates 400 additional students as a result of an expansion designed to complement the original building and acknowledge surrounding row-house architecture. Photo: Albert Vecerka/Esto, courtesy RKTB Architects

Targeted Expansions. In other cases, existing schools are simply not large enough for their growing communities. To alleviate crowding, some districts add temporary classrooms and modular trailers. A better option is to replace those spaces with creative modern additions.

Three factors should drive these additions:

• Keep the school open during the work, with minimal impact and disturbance.

• Capitalize on logical connection points between the existing and new construction, creating clear, smooth transitions and optimized circulation.

• Create architectural solutions that relate to the original school building and the neighborhood’s character and fabric.

In a recent project, Public School 70Q in Astoria, NY, we designed an addition for about 400 students in grades pre-K to 5 with new classrooms, support spaces, art and music rooms, and a gymnasium. The friendly, modern exterior includes a lower band of red brick, nodding to the scale of the area’s row houses. Above that, an exuberant, wavy façade of lighter brick is set back, moderating the scale and echoing the bowed picture windows on the nearby residential streets.

The bright, airy interiors now serve as the school’s primary entrance and home for its administrative offices, giving it the feel of a completely new facility.

As all schools should, expansions and envelope retrofits such as these examples can foster a sense of pride among neighbors, students, and the community at large. Strategic and cost-effective, additions and overcladding can deliver high-performance local landmarks.

Albert Aronov, AIA, is a partner with RKTB Architects, P.C., New York ( where he specializes in building restoration and new construction in the academic, residential, and commercial sectors.

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