Office to Schools? (Office Conversion Series – #5)

December 13, 2023

Today, we are looking at converting office space to schools. As the private, charter, adult, and alternative school movement continues to grow, converting empty office space into schools has been very successful.  Let’s see WHY:

– Larger office buildings offer a good fit for schools that need lots of space.
– There is greater opportunity to have schools located in inner cities.
– Less dense buildouts are needed for classroom space and the use is typically at night for adult learning.

– Limited outdoor space – most office buildings typically do not have enough room for playgrounds for younger age students.
– Parking – School pick-up and drop-off could be an issue for younger age students, while parking spots for older students could be limited depending on class sizes.
– Massive change in how education is happening.  We are seeing a ton more remote learning these days and fewer physical campuses.

Here are a couple of additional articles on this topic:

From Corporate Offices to Centers of Learning 
As Office Buildings Empty Out, here’s One Creative Use 
Touro College & University System to Create New Campus in Times Square

There are some challenges this conversion may cause as well as some of the great things that come with this use. Here are my final thoughts:

Safety and security for children could be an issue:  Schools need to add fencing around the former office building to deter unwanted visitors from seeing or entering the school grounds.

Here are a couple of examples of where this conversion type has been successful:

#1. In Alexandria, Virginia they chose to take advantage of this type of conversion.  Instead of building a whole new school from the ground up, they redesigned a former office building with learning in mind.  This is not the first office-to-school conversion that has been done with Alexandria Public Schools.  In 2018, they opened Ferdinand T. Day Elementary School – a former office.  ACPS Acquires Office Building to Convert to a School 

#2. Below is an article about the architectural firm,  Cooper Carry, and some of the schools they have designed by converting old offices into K-12 schools.  After reading, you will see why I think this is one of the best and most innovative uses of empty office buildings.

#3.  Several years ago, we sold the former Headquarters of Motorola to a Charter school. Great Hearts Academy has moved its headquarters and a full campus into the facility. They added a football field, courtyards, and a fantastic learning experience. Click here to read more.

#4. Additionally, over a decade ago, we did a long-term lease on an empty office building with adjacent land for a private school.  The school built out their tenant improvements and turned the additional land into a multi-use field.

Schools work in office. IF (and this is a huge if because of online learning) there is demand.  With demand, we will see more of this type of conversion.



Converting Outdated Office Buildings into Dynamic K-12 Schools

By Maureen Wiechert, Associate Principal, Cooper Carry
October 12, 2022

Dense urban areas are more prone to turn to adaptive reuse as a way of working in the traditional confines of a city. There are benefits to this mode of architecture, including shortening or expediting the construction process and lowering costs. The large square footage of office buildings make them an ideal choice for school transformation; however, the functional space needs of a school are quite different from those of a corporate campus. At Cooper Carry, we have learned to leverage outdated office spaces and turn them into dynamic learning environments.  

Cafeterias are the last major space for innovative design in converted office buildings. Instead of big box-scale spaces with long rows of utilitarian tables, we are designing more intimate spaces with smaller tables and tiered, stair-like seating where students can socialize and comfortably dine. Another solution to the dining dilemma is to utilize the micro community approach and distribute food to the students in each community, where they would then eat. This requires the addition of a kitchen to the facility, though not a full cafeteria. In schools where students bring in their lunch, like Immanuel, we have created central areas with microwaves where students and teachers can heat the food.  At Bailey’s Upper Elementary School for the Arts and Sciences in Falls Church, VA, Cooper Carry helped alleviate some of the overcrowding of the 1,400 students by  converting an existing five-story office building into a new school. As the first mid-rise elementary school in Fairfax County, the vertical design groups classrooms into two-story learning communities that open onto common learning areas and an interconnecting stair. The walls are painted with a special coating that allows the entire surface to function as a dry erase board, so students can sit on the learning stairs and engage in formal and informal teaching interactions. Other unique offerings include a hybrid library/black box theatre that spans two floors, a series of exercise and movement rooms, a science lab, and TV and video production rooms. The new building, home to more than 700 Bailey’s students, sets the standards for what is possible in a vertical school.

We also think of perspective when examining a challenge present at all schools – getting to class on time. Overcrowded walkways can not only cause accidents to happen, but also unnecessarily elevate student anxiety. To preserve some calm for students and (and keep teachers from dealing with stragglers to class), administrators and designers need to ensure easy-to-access routes to class. For office towers, this means creating a specialized floor access system, which is exactly what Cooper Carry did when redesigning the former 11-story tower on IBM’s corporate campus to create North Atlanta High School, home to more than 2,000 students. We installed state-of-the-art elevators for staff and those with disabilities to have access to every floor, while other students are only granted elevator access to the top floor of each “academy” or small learning community. Wellness is enhanced – students are encouraged to use the stairs in their own community, minimizing the number of elevator stops and decreasing the time to get to class.

Wellness is also enhanced by access to light, as studies increasingly show the positive effects of nature on learning, including reducing childhood obesity.

When Immanuel Christian School in Springfield, VA expanded their high school program, they required additional space outside of their existing campus. The result was to turn an existing five-story office building into a high school, and the incorporation of light was a major component of the design. The top four floors were previously used as dark office space above an open garage. With the replacement of interior finishes and strategic locations for interior windows, we were able to draw light inside the building and create bright, vibrant spaces for learning.

There are a so many opportunities to adapt outdated offices into innovative education spaces; spaces that facilitate learning and wellbeing. Let Cooper Carry be your partner in this process. Learn more about Cooper Carry’s K-12 Studio.


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