Assessing Public & Institutional Buildings
In the realm of private development, assessing a building is fairly straightforward. A development team can study the physical condition of a building, estimate the probable cost of renovation, determine the other project costs such as acquisition and lending, figure out the potential revenue, and do a pro-forma analysis that usually determines a payback schedule and tips the scale towards “feasible” or “not.” If the answer is “not,” the developer could decide not to purchase the property, or to sell the property if already owned, or demolish the building and move on. This is an oversimplification, of course, but public buildings are different.
While a developer may decide not to pursue a deal after a certain period of time, the public is in a position to make a long-term commitment and amortize improvements, if they are substantial enough, over a longer period of time.
In some states, where many schools are being upgraded or replaced (usually as a result of lawsuits over funding), a simple formula that compares renovation costs to replacement costs is used, with a certain ratio automatically condemning an existing school to the wrecking ball if the perceived cost of renovation is too high a percentage of replacement cost. Many significant, historic schools have been lost to this type of formula. The State of Colorado has a system of evaluating its buildings, called the “Facility Condition Index,” which seeks a target of 85%. None of the buildings covered by that state’s master plan (which we were working on at the time) could meet that target, including the Capitol.
It’s clear that governments need a more flexible way of assessing buildings.
Recently, under the auspices of the Getty Foundation’s Campus Heritage Grant program, we did some research on this subject as applied to college campus buildings. We have developed an assessment tool based on four fundamental criteria:
Historic or Architectural Significance
So, if we evaluate buildings based on these four criteria, a longer view emerges – that is, if a building is in poor physical condition and doesn’t work very well for its current use, but it is historically significant and reasonably adapted to a new use, it might be considered as a long term asset; while a building with similar characteristics without the significance or without the adaptability, might become a candidate for replacement. The purpose of this approach is to provide the public owners with an open-ended, rational process for evaluating its long-term assets, and to inject heritage into the process of determining the future of these physical resources.
Buildings are surveyed according to their architectural, structural, mechanical and electrical features. Condition analysis takes into account the age of the structure, current and past uses, effects of weather, and level of performed or deferred maintenance.
Historic or Architectural Significance
Buildings can be evaluated to determine their historic or architectural significance, using National Register of Historic Places criteria. This analysis takes into account the unique, character-establishing features of a building, the quality of design and workmanship, the significance of the designer, etc. Another element of this analysis might be to assess local significance – the cultural or institutional relevance of a building to the whole campus.
This is an evaluation of how well the building performs its intended function. Suitability topics include: evaluation of how well the buildings work for current uses and programs; evaluation of proper and efficient functioning with respect to current use; programmatic factors such as organizational requirements, spatial configurations, and adjacency relationships; technical infrastructure such as HVAC, air quality, lighting, electrical services, fire and life safety systems, and computer, data and communications devices; and building code compliance and other operational issues such as ADA accessibility, elevator access, security, and after-hours operation.
Adaptability is an assessment of how easy/difficult it would be to convert a building to an alternative use. In this age of sustainability awareness, re-using existing structures is increasingly important and desirable. We look at the ability of a building to respond to potential change of use, expansion of use, or a diminished use. It is, however, important to be able to adapt buildings for new uses in a reasonable fashion, so this analysis suggests, for instance, that an open plan post and beam building is most likely easier to adapt to another use than a building built as a jail. Criteria to examine include: structural systems, construction methods, column spacing, floor-to-floor height, structural bearing capacity, window modules, space planning, use organization, finishes, mechanical systems, and information systems. This analysis also includes looking at the site and surrounding context to determine the feasibility of additions, and other factors related to changes in the relationship between the building and its surroundings.