Architecture Program


Date of this Version

May 2007

Document Type



M.Arch Thesis, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, May 2007


Throughout many areas of the country, buildings are beginning to fall into disrepair and abandonment. Due to changing technologies, requirements, and adjacencies, these buildings are being demolished and replaced with new structures. Previously, much of the effect of abandonment was only felt in cities large enough to accommodate warehouses or industrial buildings. However, more recently smaller communities have begun to reach the same problems of empty buildings falling into disrepair. Schools are especially at risk of this fate. Various issues can cause these schools to become abandoned, including a lack of space for increased numbers of students, a lowering enrollment number, or inadequate facilities in terms of repair or code requirements. Students and teachers now require more space, efficient and accessible circulation, adjacent green areas for activity, and integration of the newest technologies in order to best create an environment that promotes both teaching and learning. While the abandonment of schools within a community can leave the building itself in disrepair, the overall effect on the neighborhood and community can be quite severe. Schools, along with other institutional structures, carry social implications for the community as a whole. They are an architectural piece of the neighborhood that physically and socially ties areas together through events and education.

In Madison, South Dakota, one such case of discarding old schools for new structures is currently underway. In the fall of 2006, a brand new elementary school will open on the edge of the 7000 person town, consolidating grades K-5 in one structure. Two different elementary schools in various neighborhoods around town will be left behind. The outcome of this consolidation is somewhat predictable, considering the characteristics of the small town. Madison is home to 7000 people, including growing families, college students, and an elderly population. As you drive into town, you notice the new Lewis Drug, Montgomery’s Furniture, and Prostrollo’s Auto Mall, all recently developed along with many other small businesses on the edge of town. Downtown, these new developments take their toll as counted by the ever-changing stores and empty windows that can’t seem to stay in business. The ones who could already moved their establishments to the outskirts by the “big-box stores.” A few consistent businesses, including banks, hair salons, clothing stores, and flower shops establish downtown for the town. Further into town, Dakota State University’s campus integrates itself with surrounding neighborhoods. The campus encompasses about six square blocks, making accessibility easy for its students. One would never know that this is one of the most technologically driven schools in the country based solely on aesthetics. On the other edge of town are the middle school, high school, and construction on the new elementary school. Around these areas, new middle to upper-class neighborhoods have sprouted up, creating a sea of typical suburban homes. The pace of the city can be summed up by its one stoplight, unless it happens to be game night at the high school or college. Community values and pride prosper, creating an environment that values heritage and history, as well as growth and progress. Unfortunately, due to the trend of the downtown district, citizen’s attempts to try to revitalize more voids in their community may prove difficult. My proposal is an adaptive reuse plan that seeks to assist the community in reusing and reinterpreting these left behind school buildings and sites, creating infill for voids in the town and individual neighborhoods. My intentions will be focused primarily on one school, Washington Elementary, whose location near Dakota State University’s campus provides an ideal opportunity for program. DSU is a pinnacle part of Madison’s community, stretching its academic and technological influence from partnerships with high school athletics and a community health center, to the town’s slogan, “In Touch With the World.” DSU is known for its educational focus on technology, offering many majors specific to that area. Currently, graduate programs are available at the university, but no housing or specific areas have been dedicated to those students. Washington Elementary, which is blocks from campus, provides an opportunity for DSU to expand its campus and facilities to accommodate and recruit more students.

In thinking about adaptive reuse not just in terms of the building itself, but also as one part of the community or surrounding neighborhood, DSU’s involvement and inclusion of additional program will aid in filling what would be a dead space in the middle of a thriving neighborhood. Understandably, the process by which Washington Elementary is filled will be inherently different from other sites, even in the same town. However, I am proposing a prototypical quality to this process, not in terms of the programming of the buildings or aesthetic quality of the outcome, but simply regarding the examination of voids in communities and the process of creating space in order to benefit the area. Documentation of concerns, findings, interviews, diagrams, mappings, and readings will provide a starting point for the process to be repeated in a different situation. While giving program to empty buildings creates a use for an area, it more importantly activates a space, giving back its previous life so it fits seamlessly with its context rather than serving as a break in the continuity of a neighborhood.

In approaching the methodology of this project, work will begin from the outside – in. First, the understanding of what makes a void in a community and what effects it has will be researched and documented, focusing on the abandoned schools in Madison. These particular characteristics could then be compared to precedents and options of reactivating the spaces explored. After defining the contextual issues, the project will focus on Washington Elementary and its immediate neighborhood. The applied program will include graduate housing, along with other needs deemed fitting. Investigation into the particular needs and objectives of both DSU and future tenants will refine the program. In the design phase, the building will be studied in its current stage in terms of structure, code compliance, and overall repair. Here, the ideals and persona of the client as a technologically advanced institution will be explored, along with the image they wish to project. In addition, when thinking about the lifespan the building up through my iteration, the issue arises of building for re-adaptation. Architects build their structures with the intention they will last forever, when in reality, that condition is rare. Although building for endurance is important, the pace and trends of our recent society suggest that architects could start to build according to deconstruction and reuse rather than demolition and waste. In that same respect, reuse could also be incorporated in terms of materiality, either using pieces of the existing school or purchasing used materials. Also during this phase, site planning and outdoor spaces will be planned and designed so as to create a connection with the surroundings.

While voids in communities are everywhere, affecting both large cities and small towns, architecture can become a response, seeking to reactivate these spaces with program, event, and character. Just as abandoned buildings were once active and necessary elements of a neighborhood, expressing the community’s values and livelihood, they can again be adapted and interpreted as integral components of an area.

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