Need Dorms? Here’s One College’s ‘Crazy’ Idea to Recycle 3 Buildings

July 20, 2017

Rob Ferrell
Goucher College had originally planned to demolish the three 1950 buildings that are now being moved across the Maryland campus.

Many institutions try to pack ambitious construction and renovation projects into the three months of summer break, but this year Goucher College is taking that to a whole new level: It’s moving three 55-bed residence halls a few hundred yards down a slope and across a road to new locations, and it plans to have two of them ready to house students again by August 19.

The first two buildings have already been lifted up off their foundations, mounted on wheels, and rolled down a temporary road to their new site. Engineers are currently working out how to separate the third building from its foundation, which turned out to be slightly different from the foundations of the other two.

"We thought it was crazy," Goucher’s president, José Antonio Bowen, says of the idea to move the three 1950 buildings rather than demolish and replace them. "But actually seeing it? It is crazy." The actual moves take about two days each, following several weeks of careful preparations.

But as crazy as moving whole buildings might sound, recycling the three 1,200-ton structures will cost Goucher only about $8 million, start to finish — half what the college would have paid to replace them with new construction, Mr. Bowen says. Plus it’s the sustainable choice, keeping some 3,600 tons of material out of the waste stream. And it preserves three buildings that many Goucher graduates remember fondly.

The relocation grew out of a campus-planning challenge that will sound familiar to many college presidents and facilities administrators. Goucher wanted to replace an awkward complex of 1950s residence halls at the south end of its campus, but to do that it needed to build a new dorm to provide swing space during the replacement. Although the campus is spacious at 287 acres, the 1,500-student college is committed to keeping most of its facilities within a car-free zone bounded by a ring road.

Ayers Saint Gross, a Baltimore architecture firm that has been working with Goucher, found a good spot for the new dorm, but on the north side of the campus, not the south side. The college and the architects realized that it made sense to replace an equally awkward residential complex on the north side before tackling the south-side project the college had originally wanted to undertake. "Most of this is dominoes," Mr. Bowen says, who notes that the college is also building a new dining hall and converting the existing chapel into an interfaith center.

In addition to the new dorm, Ayers Saint Gross designed two other buildings to fill out the north location, but only the first structure could be put up without removing the existing dorms. They could not be reused where they were because the new complex is to be a village specially designed for first-year students, with features like glass-walled laundry rooms and multiple lounges to encourage them to make new friends. So the college and Whiting-Turner, its contractor, set a timeline for demolition.

But then Goucher got a new facilities director, Terence McCann Jr., who started wondering whether tearing down perfectly usable buildings really helped Goucher meet its sustainability goals. "I wasn’t there when the decision was made to demolish them," Mr. McCann says. "I walked into the Whiting-Turner trailer one day and asked, What do you think about a few other options?" The contractor contacted Wolfe House & Building Movers, and soon a plan to recycle the three buildings in a new location came together.

"A lot of people had to weigh in," Mr. Bowen says, including students, who said the spacious doubles in the old structures were worth keeping. And the buildings themselves checked out as solid. "Once all those questions were answered, I had no problem convincing the board."

A Tight Schedule

As dorms, the three buildings still aren’t the spiffiest, but they’re "good enough," says Mr. Bowen, and the price was certainly right. They also have attractive clay-tile roofs and handsome exterior stonework that he says would cost $65 a square foot today. Goucher had previously put some money into upgrades and new furniture, and now the buildings will also get new heating systems, some additional refurbishing, and some changes to make the first floors more accessible.

They’ll also be arranged around a far more spacious and welcoming courtyard than they were previously. (Goucher, originally a women’s college, was laid out in a way that was meant to shield women from prying male eyes, Mr. Bowen says, with tight courtyards and walled walkways that, to some, have an almost prisonlike feel.)

Because one of the relocation scheme’s big advantages was being able to use the three dorms without interruption, "the schedule is critical," Mr. McCann says. As soon as the May 15 graduation was over, a fence was put up around the site so work could begin. A big time saver is that the buildings are being moved complete with their fixtures and furnishings.

Even so, it now seems certain that the third building can’t be moved in time to be open by August 19. The college has a backup plan, in which students will be housed at a discount in a building that would otherwise have been closed because it’s right beside the construction site for the new dining hall. If all goes smoothly, the new first-year village should be completed in a little over a year — and then, Mr. Bowen says, Goucher can go ahead with replacing the south complex that started the whole process.

Once they’re settled on their new foundations and connected to utilities, Mr. Bowen says, the three recycled buildings should pay for themselves in 10 years and should easily last another 40 or 50.

Lawrence Biemiller writes about a variety of usual and unusual higher-education topics. Reach him at lawrence.biemiller@chronicle.com.