Universities Opting for Renovation of STEM Facilities vs. New Construction

Understanding Criteria to Determine if Renovation or Expansion is the Better Option
  • Synthetic Chemistry

    The original space intended for use by a new synthetic chemistry faculty member at the University of North Texas consisted primarily of storage and individual work tables unsuitable for chemical fume hoods. The renovated space features an instrumentation lab with six 8-foot fume hoods, open work areas, and a gas monitoring system.

    Photos courtesy of TreanorHL

  • Brighter Corridor

    The College of Engineering at the University of North Texas is located in a repurposed manufacturing facility with 15-foot-wide corridors that were dreary and underutilized. Some of the work areas were extended into the corridor, with updated flooring and lighting and added windows that showcase the work going on inside.

    Photos courtesy of TreanorHL

  • Pharmacy Lab

    The University of North Texas imagined renovating the space on the left into a specialty instructional skills lab for pharmacists. With the animal facility located directly below, logistical coordination was required to protect research during the renovation. New open lab spaces contain the necessary equipment and infrastructure to support the work of students and faculty. Added windows bring in plenty of natural light.

    Photos courtesy of TreanorHL

Time and money restrictions are prompting some universities to ditch plans for new construction in favor of renovation or expansion to accommodate their science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) programs. Opting to renovate requires stakeholders to evaluate the existing building for the ability to accommodate the equipment and infrastructure needed to provide the best user experiences in the most versatile spaces, the highest level of productivity, and ample flexibility for future programs.

To choose between renovation and new construction, consider:

  • What factors are driving the need for facility changes?
  • Can the university’s goals be achieved within the renovated space?
  • Can the renovation be done with minimal impact on other building occupants?
  • Do the infrastructure systems have the capacity to support the renovation without major changes?
  • If major infrastructure changes are necessary, can services be maintained to other occupied portions of the building?
  • What challenges can be expected and how will they be overcome?

Reasons to Renovate, and Potential Challenges

Renovation may be necessary to accommodate new equipment, grants, or educational programs, or a faculty member who requires additional equipment or space. At the heart of most decisions is a lack of funding for a new building or an accelerated timeline to complete the work.

“One of the challenges we see is when a university has the available space, but they don’t know if it’s going to work,” says Tim Reynolds, a principal at TreanorHL Science & Technology. “Mechanical issues, such as the need for makeup air and exhaust air—especially if you have a wet lab—tend to complicate things.”

Inadequate or antiquated technology, mechanical, electrical, and plumbing systems, as well as building structure constraints such as low floor-to-floor heights, can present problems. The future cost of MEP, equipment, and general building maintenance also must be accounted for.

It is important to remember that renovations and additions will be completed in an existing building where programs are operating and cannot be disturbed, says Reynolds. Once the project is completed, the building must meet all applicable code and accessibility guidelines. He suggests maintaining reasonable expectations about what can be accomplished in the existing space, and realizing that the finished project must adhere to site-specific regulations.

Space for New Chemistry Faculty Member

TreanorHL has completed multiple renovation projects at the University of North Texas in Denton, most recently for a new chemist who was hired to occupy an endowed chair position. The space was previously designed for computational research, but had to be altered to meet the needs of synthetic chemistry. The 2,625-sf renovation, completed in early 2022, cost approximately $920,000.

“The greatest challenge was working within the existing mechanical infrastructure,” says Jeff Davis, a principal at TreanorHL. “We had a very limited budget, so modifications to the existing mechanical system were not possible. The program for the space was fume-hood intensive, and we had to work within the limitation of the existing system. To verify capacity, we hired a commissioning agent early in the design to perform an existing condition assessment. The results of this testing informed the number of fume hoods the project could support.”

The new chemist had requested eight 8-foot fume hoods, but there was concern whether the existing mechanical capacity could handle the load. TreanorHL’s decision to hire a testing and balancing consultant to test the mechanical system’s supply and exhaust capacity was critical. The test determined there was an inadequate capacity for the requested number and size of fume hoods, and funds were not available to supplement the building’s supply or exhaust systems.

The original space, a 21-foot structural bay, contained primarily storage shelves on the walls and individual work tables. The space was demolished and overhauled to provide an instrumentation lab, a synthetic chemistry lab with six 8-foot fume hoods rather than eight, shared office space, open work areas, and a gas monitoring system.

Discovery Park Campus Addition

The College of Engineering for the University of North Texas is located at the Discovery Park Campus in an old 1.2 million-sf manufacturing facility. TreanorHL designed a 26,000-sf addition in 2020 for use by the new Biomedical Engineering Department at a cost of $12.3 million.

“The Biomedical Engineering Department was experiencing exponential growth, and the lab spaces needed to be flexible to address both research and instructional needs,” says Jeff Davis. “The growth and change within the program were so dynamic that use of the labs transitioned from instructional to research during the construction of the facility. Our design approach to the labs was based on the need for flexibility and adaptability. This approach allowed us to transition the function of the space with minimal disruption and no delay to the project.”

The two-story addition is situated at the northwest corner of the building, making use of what was previously an understated back entrance near the largest parking lot. It features three instructional labs, a 150-seat tiered lecture hall, a 90-person classroom, and hybrid group learning spaces with a 60-person classroom.

“We showed university leaders some active learning or hybrid classrooms, and the dean said, ‘I feel like there should be a maître d’ at the back of the classroom and you should have a reservation for one of your tables,” recalls Reynolds. “He was not a fan, so we took him to tour some classrooms at other facilities to do some benchmarking. Then the dean said, ‘I think we need some of those in our facility.’”

The original building had 15-foot-wide corridors, which were continued in the addition. However, TreanorHL spruced up the corridor by adding seating and gathering areas, and extending some of the rooms into the corridor to showcase the work going on inside.

“That was one way we started to work with this extremely wide corridor,” says Micah Davis, an architect at TreanorHL. “We were trying to get an efficiency number and also work with square footage and not just give up so much to a corridor. We started pushing things out with glazing into it, and grabbed more square footage for the actual rooms, and then it kind of made showcase spaces along this corridor.”

Every nook and cranny of the limited footprint of the addition was used to create student spaces, and windows were added to bring natural light into the research labs. The addition also features colorful luxury vinyl flooring and enhanced ceiling lights. The university has decided to use some of these elements in other parts of the building.

Health Science Center

TreanorHL completed two projects in the Research and Education Building (RES) at the Health Science Center (HSC) of the University of North Texas in 2013, and is currently working on a third.

In 2013, the HSC started a new College of Pharmacy, and although there were academic areas, there were not enough research labs. Renovating approximately 4,300 sf on the third floor to provide space for new faculty members and to make the restrooms ADA-compliant cost $901,000.

The RES building presented unique structural challenges with a horizontal service chase on the floor where the mechanical and electrical infrastructure systems were routed, and it was bordered on each side by a solid beam supporting the floor above.

“The condition required that all ductwork, conduit, and piping from the horizontal chase to the labs be routed above the beam, between the structural tees for the floor above,” says Reynolds. “Coordination was critical to the project success. In addition, the structural column grid was not ideal for wet lab spaces that included chemical fume hoods and larger floor-mounted equipment. However, because columns were located on perimeter lab walls, we were able to redefine the planning module to create open research lab spaces to meet current and future needs.”

Also in 2013, TreanorHL completed a 3,000-sf renovation on the first floor of the HSC to create a specialty instructional lab space for pharmacists. The floor was directly above the animal facility, so it was necessary to create a logistics plan to move some of the animals to adjacent areas, so the research would not be impacted by the renovation.

Constraints included the inability to move expensive IT equipment, and an existing corridor that had to remain because it was an exit from the classrooms. The pharmacy skills lab was moved to a corner, and a window was installed along the corridor wall to bring in natural light and showcase activities within the lab.

TreanorHL’s most recent project in the RES building is a 15,600-sf renovation on the fourth floor. The cost per square foot was relatively low, because the university had upgraded its MEP infrastructure, much of which could be reused in this project. However, the mechanical chase and the racetrack corridor still posed constraints to creating more lab spaces.

For the labs situated at the northern section of the floor, part of the corridor was used to increase lab space by 6 feet and to bring in more natural light.

“In those labs, we went with a single aisle, double loaded,” says Micah Davis. “We have more of the wet benches toward the service chase side. That way, we could feed all of our utilities into the service chase and not have to core drill through the floor. The ones against the window are more dry benches.”

With the southern labs, there was a 24-foot lab depth, and all of the benches are on one side, so everything can be fed back to the service chase.

“This allows us to have lab supports on the ends, versus the top labs that have lab supports against the chase,” says Micah Davis. “One difficulty we had with the continuous service chase was finding a place to cut through the corridor. We had very little flexibility—about an inch on each side of the wall—before it starts hitting an existing duct. This was a very preset location that we had to adjust for, and we tried not to relocate existing infrastructure to save on cost.”

Lessons Learned

Completing a renovation means understanding there will be limitations. When limitations exist, you must accept the challenge, and create a solution to meet the client’s needs.

“I think the most important thing is to imagine the possibilities,” says Reynolds. “It’s nice to design new buildings, but it’s interesting to discover what you can do with renovation projects and how you can address any challenges.”

By Tracy Carbasho

Published 11-30-2022