Going to the principal's office in Atlanta's Bass High School isn't what it used to be.
In the same place where students would sit in anticipation and dread, a lucky renter now enjoys a one-of-a-kind Bass Lofts apartment suite, complete with the original bank vault that once held valuables for the school. "The people who choose to live here relish it. It's still an old school. We left up several chalkboards and teachers' bookcases," says Dennis Hertlein, principal of Surber, Barber, Choate, Hertlein Architects of Atlanta.
Obviously, this type of adaptive reuse is a special experience for architects and residents alike, and luckily, it's becoming more common. As high-tech mega-schools pop up in the suburbs, old neighborhood schools are left empty, becoming a problem for school districts and communities alike.
But with some patience, community support, and creative financing, an old school can find a new life as a great place to live. Ask anyone what the best thing is about making a school into multifamily housing, and over and over, you'll hear the same thing: "The windows are incredible." Big school windows are easily adapted to create sunny living spaces. But retired schools have other architectural advantages, too. Wide hallways make for easy access, cloakrooms turn into terrific galley kitchens, and a chalkboard can look great in a living room.
"Old schools can convert easily to housing, particularly senior housing with big one-bedroom units and wide hallways, but family buildings work well too," says Jim Sari, who has worked on dozens of historic school renovations and is also CEO of the Landmark Group, a North Carolina-based community redevelopment firm.
After "graduating" from so many projects, Sari knows how to assess the viability of redeveloping an old school. First, he looks at the neighborhood. "You can't redevelop a community that doesn't want to be redeveloped," he says, adding: "It's not just about putting units into the building–it's about creating a new tax base and giving a service to the community. It revitalizes old areas of town. It's a remedy for the existing system, rather than a burden on it."
The size of the building is also important. "You need at least 40,000 square feet to 50,000 square feet in the building, with land available to add more units if needed and, of course, parking," Sari says. But don't overbuild: You don't want these apartments to sit vacant, so do your homework to ensure local demand can support the additional supply.
If you're ready to go back to school, keep reading for a handful of success stories and tips to help you do your homework on that old school in your neighborhood. With careful planning, unconventional financing, and innovative design, your next trip to the principal's office could be a wonderful opportunity.