A Campus With a Smokestack: Converting Old Factories Into Schools (2023)


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Adaptive reuse projects have turned former big-box stores, churches, tortilla factories, office buildings and even a space for laser tag into educational facilities.

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A Campus With a Smokestack: Converting Old Factories Into Schools (1)

By Patrick Sisson

The P.R. Mallory Campus, a century-old brick building in the Englewood neighborhood in Indianapolis, has long been known for innovation. The company’s scientists and engineers had for decades devised new consumer goods, including radios, washing machines and even the Duracell battery.

Now, one of its new tenants, Purdue Polytechnic High School, hopes its students will make their own scientific discoveries.

In 2020, Purdue, a 600-student charter school, took over two floors of the former industrial site, which had sat abandoned for 30 years. The campus was transformed with the help of historic renovation tax credits to help adapt the space for reuse.

The school is an example of adaptive reuse projects for education, which have turned former big-box stores, churches, tortilla factories, office buildings and even a space for laser tag into educational centers. In most cases, these projects have benefited charter institutions that focus on urban neighborhoods, which often start off leasing spare rooms in locations like malls or churches, then turn to adaptive reuse to save money when buying more permanent space.

School officials view the commercial real estate slump as a moment to seize on new opportunities. Growth in midsize cities, especially in the Sun Belt, offers potential for conversions. This is especially true for schools with more autonomy that want to try new spaces and layouts.


“I see far more transformative work being done by social entrepreneurs who are not bound by large district rules and regulations,” said Larry Kearns, a principal at Wheeler Kearns Architects.

Charter schools reported significant growth during the early years of the pandemic. Enrollment rose 7 percent, or more than 240,000 students, in the 2020-21 school year from the previous school year, according to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.Enrollment has since waned slightly, though the number of facilities continues to increase. Since 2000, public schools have lost about1.2 million students.

“There’s still a need for schools, and the market has picked up again after stalling out a bit,” said Amanda Whitaker of ANF Architects, which focuses on education projects, including a charter high school in Crosstown Concourse, a former Sears warehouse in Memphis that was converted into a vertical village. “In the charter school realm, and lower-income, inner-city area, the ability to find a vacant lot to build a school just isn’t there,” she said.

Charter schools have remained divisive. Opponents say the schools rob public institutions of funding, serve only part of the student population and, in some cases, provide substandard education. Many cities have rules on where they can operate and what property they can own, and even caps on the total number of schools.


Proponents counter that they offer school choice, and newer, better facilities, particularly in underfunded neighborhoods. In addition, charter schools have more freedom to choose their locations.

For public schools, many issues make adaptive reuse less than ideal: existing real estate investments, school closings, old infrastructure and funding cuts, requirements for size and outdoor space and maintenance and material plans that discourage unusual locations. Andpublic schools, especially high schools, are larger and have a harder time resolving issues like security, disruptive noise and windows and daylight for classrooms.

Finally, many school districts are focused on renovating and upgrading their own buildings, thanks in part to millions of dollars in funding for better ventilation, mechanical systems and other upgrades have flowed to public schools via the 2021 American Rescue Plan.

Carving classroom space out of commercial buildings is relatively straightforward, said Ms. Whitaker, but installing plumbing, heating, ventilation and air-conditioning systems that meet the needs of hundreds of students becomes tricky. That’s why big box stores and other retail spaces, which often already have restrooms and kitchens, make for easier conversions. She also found that churches — which often have multipurpose areas, kitchens and even outdoor space — make good schools.

Charter organizations around the nation are adapting former commercial sites.


Freedom Preparatory Academy, a Memphis-based charter organization, plans to expand to Birmingham, Ala., next year. The organization’s chief executive, Roblin J. Webb, said she had been touring older commercial spaces and a former Boys & Girls Club she hoped to buy.

Colorado Early Colleges, a chain in the Fort Collins and Colorado Springs area, has all of its eight schools, and one under construction, in former commercial buildings, including a solar inverter factory and second-class office space. One warehouse conversion project includes an indoor gymnasium, and a leftover crane has been turned into a design centerpiece. Strung with light fixtures, it helps create a unique common space.

“Rather than a big public school with 2,000 to 3,000 students, C.E.C. can have a series of smaller schools within the region,” said Paul Vanderheiden, an interior designer at Neenan Archistruction, which has worked on all the organization’s locations.

These types of conversions, and even renovations that focus on STEM curriculums and more open collaboration spaces, have become a staple of educational design. JGMA, a Chicago architectural firm, converted a suburban Kmart store into a prep academy that opened in 2018. In New York, the brightly colored School for the Physical City opened in a converted office space in 1993.


Charter advocates also say that schools with open floor plans that mimic the office spaces of tech and design firms will prepare students for STEM-focused careers.

The XQ Institute, a nonprofit organization that calls for more real-world educational opportunities and has teamed up with charters and public school districts in New York and Washington, promotes these layouts. If the schools of the 20th century were designed around the assembly line, shouldn’t today’s high schools look more like innovation centers?

Schools like Purdue Polytechnic represent a small group that models how educational facilities should be built, said Michele Cahill, an XQ senior adviser who was a New York school official during the Bloomberg administration. The future of schools requires opening up buildings for project-based learning, she said, and creating engaged spaces that avoid distraction and allow for better engagement.

Purdue Polytechnic teams up with the nearby Big 10 university of the same name to provide advanced courses. The building’s open spaces, now divided by roll-up garage doors, allow students to create and collaborate, said Keeanna Warren, the organization’s chief executive.


“The facility you put your kids in shows what you value,” she said. “A good number of our kids come straight from the neighborhood, so they feel good knowing what the facility once looked like, which now feels like a real investment in them.”

In Kansas City, the Barstow Schools opened a new facility, the IDEA Space, in a 65,000-square-foot former Hy-Vee grocery store last fall. At roughly $12 million, including $3 million for the real estate, the new facility cost one-third of what a built-from-the-ground-up project would.

“Part of the attractiveness of the space is that you can dream big,” said the organization’s president, Shane Foster. “It’s a big old grocery store with a 19-foot ceiling, so we didn’t have to tear down brick walls to create this wide-open space.”

Increased demand for early childhood education has also driven more real estate transactions, seeking to transform commercial space into facilities for preschoolers.

More office owners in Brooklyn and Manhattan are getting creative to attract schools by offering separate entrances and designated elevators, said Paul Wexler, a broker for Corcoran’s New York real estate team. He recently represented Empire State Realty Trust in a deal with the New York City School Construction Authority to create a pre-K space in a former Ethan Allen showroom in Manhattan.

Part of the demand for early childhood spaces comes from mandatory expansion from new funding initiatives in cities like New York, Boston and Washington. But it’s also because demand still far outpaces supply, said Travis Waldrop, vice president of real estate at Primrose Schools, an early education chain with nearly 500 locations across the country.

In Grant Park, south of Atlanta, an obsolete warehouse was turned into a preschool, with the roof partially peeled back to create outdoor play space within the structure’s walls. In Austin, one location sandwiched a playground between a parking deck and an office. Primrose has eight other potential adaptive reuse locations in the pipeline.

“Flexibility is the strategy that wins the day,” Mr. Waldrop said. “Developing these sites is a ​​100-sided puzzle.”

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