Springtime was Demo Time for Ohio’s Historic Neighborhood Schools

Posted on: June 7th, 2010 by Guest Writer 2 Comments

Written by Timothy Hornbeck

Hudson Elementary School (1915) in Summit County

Hudson Elementary School (1915) in Summit County

During March the temperature gets warmer, the snow slowly melts and life that has been dormant throughout the winter begins to re-emerge.  Likewise, so do the dump trucks, excavators and skid steer loaders.  It was springtime in Ohio, the start of many projects to abate and demolish historic/neighborhood schools that have been abandoned for new educational facilities.

Just this year, I calculate fifteen schools built between 1909 and 1960 have been lost with more scheduled for demolition this summer and fall.  Many of these buildings were originally built as neighborhood anchors and educational legacies for future generations, but they are rapidly being replaced by campus-style facilities located on the outer edges of many communities.  These include schools like Hudson Elementary School (1915) in Summit County, which was adorned with two large sandstone plaques displaying poetic quotes; West Unity High School (1921) in Williams County with its three-story blend of red brick and sandstone accents; or even last fall's loss of Champion Avenue Middle School (1909), originally Columbus's first all African-American de facto segregated school.

West Unity High School (1921) in Williams County

West Unity High School (1921) in Williams County

Ohio has reached the halfway point of its public education facilities construction program.  Created in 1997, the Ohio School Facilities Commission (OSFC) oversees this program.  The OSFC approves the individual facility project plans, provides management oversight and disperses the state's portion of funding based on a local district's property wealth.  Since 1997, more than $8 billion has been allocated to school facilities.  Overall this program is truly beneficial to Ohio's educational system, but there are some concerns.

The OSFC utilizes a "two-thirds guideline" to gauge the cost of renovation against new construction.  If the cost to renovate an existing school exceeds two-thirds the cost to build an equally sized new facility, then the OSFC recommends that the existing school be replaced.  Initially this appears to help with the decision to renovate or replace, but if you don't take a closer look, an opportunity for savings could be missed.

For example, after completing a feasibility study, a neighborhood school built in the 1920s has a comprehensive renovation estimate of $7 million and the cost of an equally-sized new school is estimated at $10 million.  The renovation costs are 70% of a new building.  Even though the estimated costs are over "two-thirds," the renovation option is still a significant savings.  Would you follow this guideline to evaluate your own home?

If the local district chooses to renovate, they will need to submit a waiver for OSFC approval. While the state co-funds renovation in the same manner as new construction, the need to obtain the waiver may influence some local decision-makers into foregoing the renovation of the historic school.

If a district decides to build a new school; the OSFC will co-fund the cost to abate and demolish any abandoned facility.  Depending on the facility, the direct costs of demolition and abatement could run into the millions, but there are also indirect costs.

Champion Avenue Middle School (1909) in Columbus

Champion Avenue Middle School (1909) in Columbus

Since this year's Historic Preservation Month theme was "Old is the New Green," let's take a closer look at environmental costs.  Every building contains "embodied energy," which is the total amount of energy used to produce the materials and construct the structure.

The embodied energy unit of measurement, the British Thermal Unit (BTU), is not very telling, but it can be converted into a more understandable format, such as the number of recycled aluminum cans or gallons of gasoline.  For example, the above mentioned 1920s school is 100,000 square feet.  TheGreenestBuilding.org estimates the amount of embodied energy within this school, the energy used for the demolition of this school and the energy used to construct an equally sized facility would be equivalent to wasting 224,476,800,000 aluminum cans or 2,427,826 gallons of gasoline valued at over $7 million (at $2.90 per gallon).

These basic examples help illustrate the financial savings of renovation and the environmental impact of replacing an existing school with a new facility.  Multiply this by the fifteen schools mentioned above and the figures skyrocket.

Savings and sustainability do not start with new construction; it starts by thoroughly and objectively evaluating what we already have and re-using whenever possible.  In 2010, examining direct cost is no longer sufficient.

Ask yourself these questions:  In the long run, does a newly constructed school actually produce a savings?  Is it truly sustainable for the community and environment?  Maybe the answer lies within the buildings that start to vanish in the springtime.

Timothy Hornbeck is an amateur preservationist living in Wellington, Ohio. He became interested in historic neighborhood schools after serving on his local school district's facilities planning committee and is also the creator of the Renovate Ohio Schools website.

West Unity demolition photo courtesy of The Advance Reporter. Hudson demolition photo courtesy of Bill Breedon. All remaining photos courtesy of www.OldOhioSchools.com.

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2 Responses

  1. Tyler Davis

    June 7, 2010

    As a native Ohioan who visits every summer, I am deeply saddened by the lackadaisical attitude of elected officials, residents, and alumni of so many historic school that sit abandoned and waiting for the wrecking ball. These places deserve to be saved. My own grandmother’s high school, Washington High School in Utica Ohio sits empty and forlorn, and it is a BEAUTIFUL building with gorgeous stone ornamentation from the early twenties. There is a new high school in Utica, so I’m assuming the old one will be torn down. Very sad. I wish there was something more I could do…

  2. Holly

    June 8, 2010

    First of all, I think you wrote a beautiful piece to make people think about the historic value of buildings. I hold a great love of history especially in buildings ever since childhood growing up in a 2-story brick home built in the 1850’s. But I feel like we see the beauty as we drive by and do not see the cost of the heating bill for the 12 foot ceilings, the retrofit wire management catastrophe of new technology, and the usefulness of space in an education environment that keeps changing.

    As for the 2/3 guideline, it is just a guideline. The waiver process is not challenging, it is a written statement of reasoning. The 2/3 guideline was put in place because once you get into real renovation of a school 80-100 years old, there can be so many surprises behind those walls. It doesn’t take long to for the cost of those surprises to be over 100% of the cost to build new.

    I adore these old schools, but I struggle with the challenge to better our learning environments. Most of the schools in the 1920’s era, with proper maintenance, have held up wonderfully. Getting a century of life use out of these schools I believe IS economical, but when is it no longer feasible? We need to push the designers/architects today to think outside the standard cookie-cutter new schools, which they are finally beginning to do. Bring back the personality and the heart of the community and build learning environments that are functional and adaptable as well. This will be a challenge for architects and the community. Cheaper is not always better. (Sorry so long, just a debate close to my heart.)