One of the many challenges facing public charter schools today is finding, and affording, a physical home for the school. Many schools have taken the path of reusing existing buildings – empty buildings that have lost their market value and can be obtained at bargain prices. But buyer beware – don’t be fooled by a great price! Don’t purchase anything before conducting thorough due diligence and evaluating the true limits and costs of what the site and building have to offer your school.
So let’s say the building price is competitive. But what might it cost to actually convert the building into a school? What should one look for, and what questions should be asked when considering a potential school site and building? A few questions on your checklist should be:
- Is the site zoned to allow a school on the property? Can it even be used for a school?
- Will the site allow for safe traffic conditions? Be sure to check with the local Department of Transportation.
- Does the site have any environmental conditions, such as wetlands or contamination?
- What is the current use of the building? Office? Retail? Education? Other? This determines what type of code improvements you may need to make.
- Will the existing mechanical system accommodate a school?
- Are there enough plumbing fixtures? Typically, more plumbing fixtures are required for a school.
- Is there enough electrical service in the building to support systems and technology? Is the lighting adequate for a school?
- Is it the right size for your program needs? Test fit the building by doing preliminary space planning.
The list of questions can go on and on.
A Case Study – Metrolina Regional Scholars Academy
Metrolina Regional Scholars Academy (MRSA), an established public charter school serving 400 kids in grades K thru 8, was occupying a few classrooms leased from an adjacent private school. They desperately needed a new, permanent home. What they ended up with was a 52,000 square foot state-of-the-art immersive learning scape – space formerly used as a call center – for a construction cost of $33 dollars a square foot! How did they accomplish this miracle?
First, they conducted preliminary feasibility studies on three potential sites: a green field site, an existing building in a center city neighborhood, and a relatively new call center in an office park. The initial analysis revealed that the green field site would cost too much to buy land and construct a ground up school building. The center city site was limited in size, had some traffic concerns and needed to be rezoned. Since the call center site had none of these constraints, it was chosen for further study.
A detailed analysis of the call center building determined that it was a perfect candidate for repurposing into a school. The site had more than enough parking, adequate landscape to satisfy zoning and ample stacking space for safely transporting students. Since the building was a call center, the primary building systems were adequately sized. The mechanical system had more than enough cooling, so only minor modifications were needed. The only plumbing fixtures that were added were for teachers and the K-1 classrooms. Since the electrical service had supported heavy computing systems when the facility was a call center, it was large enough for a school. And the building was equipped throughout with a sprinkler system, allowing for use as a school and reducing many of the code restrictions.
The building renovation was designed under the NC Rehab Code for Existing Buildings, which requires that only modifications need to comply with the current code (other existing conditions can remain without code upgrades). Many of the existing walls were used in the new design. Offices, restrooms, stairs, elevators and electrical closets remained in place. Most of the renovation funds were focused on creating new classrooms, media centers, multipurpose learning spaces and sustainable design features such as energy efficient lighting. The building, which is seeking LEED certification from the United States Green Building Council, was designed, permitted and constructed in nine months – at least three times as fast as a traditional green field public school building.
The key factors to success when considering an existing building and site for your public charter school are: identifying multiple options, conducting thorough due diligence on each option to avoid surprises later and being sure the facility is test fit and will accommodate your program completely. Be sure to engage professional consultants who understand school design, programming and planning, and the codes associated with that. Doing your homework and testing the options will make sure you pass the grade without giving away the bank.