As U.S. universities and colleges undergo unprecedented shifts in the makeup of student bodies, an equally rapid and disruptive evolution in learning styles and tools is challenging campus architects, planners, facilities managers and program directors to rethink the design of existing academic buildings.
“Adapting historic structures to optimize their value and utility while reducing the requirement to build anew is critical for many institutions,” says architect Mary Burnham, FAIA, partner at Murphy Burnham & Buttrick (MBB) Architects, specialists in adaptive reuse and integrated sustainable retrofits of historic structures.
The demand for nearly unlimited technologic capacity, increased resiliency and sustainability, flexibility of use and a more “universal” aesthetic for academic buildings is driven by emerging generations of students and faculty – and has resulted in a steady uptick in renovations and retrofits of existing buildings on campuses across the nation. According to MBB, optimizing existing historic buildings in lieu of expanding onto campus open space is more sustainable, economically viable, and – in many cases – preserves the identity of iconic American campuses.
This May, MBB will present the topic of creating sustainable and resilient adaptive reuse structures on campuses at the AIA National Conference on Architecture in Los Angeles. Burnham’s colleague and MBB Partner Jeffrey Murphy, FAIA, LEED AP, will moderate a high-level panel with three university architects: Alice J. Raucher AIA, AUA, LEED AP, of the University of Virginia; Ronald J. McCoy Jr., FAIA, of Princeton University; and David Lenox, AIA, of Stanford University. The panel will discuss the opportunities that arise through adaptive reuse of historically significant older buildings.
“Many of the buildings on these campuses have historic value, often carrying landmark status,” says Murphy. “Preserving the campus’s historic buildings and using this as an opportunity to make them more sustainable and resilient is a great opportunity to enhance campus performance.”
MBB recently completed a string of renovations for prominent institutions including New York University (NYU), Princeton University, and New York City’s Landmark’s Preservation Commission (LPC) where the firm’s expertise has been instrumental in modernizing and redeveloping key historic buildings housing classrooms, offices, presentation rooms and event spaces. According to the National Register of Historic Places, hundreds of U.S. universities and colleges have landmark structures and districts on their campuses which can be optimized to serve the academic community’s changing needs.
“Replacing mechanical systems and adding smart technology is part of what we do to reinvent these buildings to better serve their communities,” Burnham says. “The goal is also to create greater programmatic functionality and relevance, while ensuring long-term preservation and resiliency of the structures.”
Another top priority for architects working on historic campus buildings is improving accessibility for people of all abilities and diverse cultural backgrounds and making buildings more humanistic. Illustrating a growing interest in these approaches, the architects at MBB are working with a number of institutions on creative adaptive reuse and retrofit projects.
Recent work includes:
– At Princeton University, one of the city’s oldest surviving examples of Georgian architecture, Bainbridge House (1776), was renovated and converted into a gallery and offices for the University’s Art Museum. MBB turned the entire ground floor of the historic residence into a universally accessible public arts center with ample flexible event space. A low bluestone wall now wraps the front and side of the building, providing an additional outdoor gathering area and seating for visitors to the art center and neighboring theater. MBB’s conversion of the house – which was previously owned and occupied by the Historical Society of Princeton – included restoring its entire brick exterior in situ, upgrading the thermal performance of its envelope and making it ADA accessible.
– At New York University, MBB celebrated cultural connections by transforming an historic townhouse on Washington Square into a home for the Abu Dhabi Institute. While the building’s façade remains unchanged, its renovated interior includes a large event and gallery space and a “connection center” for U.S. students to interact with students in Abu Dhabi via a state-of-the-art video conference system, as well as offices for faculty and flexible meeting spaces. While from the outside the building blends in with its neighbors, inside the material and color palettes recall the culture and desert environment in Abu Dhabi with tiles that are light in color and layered spaces that use translucent materials to filter light. MBB describes the project as a “portal between New York and Abu Dhabi” and a “home away from home” for visiting faculty and students, whose layout can adapt easily to new uses as the program matures.
– Adapting landmark buildings to optimize their value and utility is a critical subject for many institutions of higher education, and MBB proves their mastery of such projects in their work for New York City’s Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC). Located on multiple floors within a pair of landmarked buildings in lower Manhattan, the institution’s new light filled offices and common space now fosters social interaction and collaboration with a design that improves efficiency for the institution’s unique workflow. The multiple floors of offices also feature state-of-the art technologies and boast LEED Silver certification. According to MBB, “The project is a demonstration of the LPC’s commitment to responsible adaptive reuse of historic spaces, and serves as a paradigm for the public.”

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