Public Comment

New Life for Berkeley High’s Original Gym

By Henrik Bull
Thursday September 25, 2008 - 09:57:00 AM

The old gymnasium at Berkeley High School was granted national and state landmark status as a historic district in January 2008. Earlier, in July 2007, the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission landmarked the gymnasium. 

Recently, the Berkeley Unified School District Board, approved the South of Bancroft Master Plan, which would demolish this building and build new buildings over a four-year period. 

Aside from historic preservation, I question the decision to demolish the gymnasium building on the basis of energy, environmental and economic considerations. 

Preservation of buildings can be thought of as the ultimate recycling. Buildings are vast repositories of energy. It takes energy to manufacture or extract building materials, more energy to transport them to the construction site and still more energy to assemble them into a building. If the structure is demolished and landfilled, the locked up energy is totally wasted! The demolition itself uses more energy, and of course, the construction of a new building uses yet more. 

Using formulas produced by the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, the old gymnasium building of 88,000 square feet, embodies the energy equivalent of 1.12 million gallons of gasoline, and the demolition would create about 7,000 tons of waste, enough to fill 45 railroad cars, which would stretch almost a half a mile.  

Once the old building is gone, the new building would not only require more energy, but would use more natural resources and release more pollutants and greenhouse gases into the environment. Based on recent studies, even if many of the materials are recycled and the new buildings are designed to the highest energy conservation standards, it would take at least fifty years to recover the energy lost in the demolition of such a building. 


Results of the study group 

Earlier this year, a committee of 21 volunteers, organized by Marie Bowman and Lew Jones, met at Berkeley High to brainstorm ideas for the adaptive reuse of the old gym and warm water pool. The school district’s program for the proposed construction was distributed and drawings of the old building were made available. The group was divided into three teams, which included several engineers, architects and landscape architects. Many new concepts were generated and the results were incorporated into a report issued by the School Board in April. No action was taken by the Board and there has been no thorough study authorized or undertaken to compare the cost of the new construction with using the old building to house the proposed uses. 

As a member of one of the teams, I was impressed by the soundness and imagination of the concepts generated but have been disturbed that there was no follow-up to achieve a single unified solution to the reuse and rehabilitation of the building. 


A new plan 

Because I am recently retired, I now have time available to look further into the rehabilitation of the old gymnasium. In my 50 plus years of architectural practice, I have designed buildings that have included all of the proposed uses; classrooms, gymnasiums, swimming pools as well as renovations of large buildings. 

After analyzing the problem for several weeks, using the plans of the old gym, as well as walking through the building several times, I have developed a plan, which I believe satisfies all elements of the School District’s South of Bancroft Master Plan. Perhaps, more important, I believe it can be completed more economically than building new. 

Additionally, the classrooms and gymnasium spaces would be spacious and flooded with natural daylight. The existing warm water pool would be restored and a proper entrance created. It should be noted that the Richmond Plunge is currently being restored for a fraction of the cost that has been discussed for building a new warm water pool for Berkeley. 

The exterior of the building would be basically unchanged, except for the obvious need for maintenance which has been deferred. Most important, all the proposed uses fit comfortably within the spacing of the original structural system. Only minor structural changes and some seismic upgrades would be necessary. This is key to achieving an economical solution. 

By repositioning the softball diamond, a regulation 250-foot radius baseball field can be accommodated, achieving a better orientation for the players. All of the other outdoor athletic activities in the South of Bancroft Master Plan can be accommodated. Adaptive re-use of this building would satisfy the classroom and office needs. 

It is understood that time and money have been spent in developing the South of Bancroft Master Plan. However, since the gymnasium building is not scheduled for demolition until 2011, there is till time to consider another approach, which I believe, can save money, time, energy and natural resources. It would be a truly green solution. 

The country and Berkeley are on a green mission. Let’s continue on this worthy path. I would like to invite the School Board and their architects to join me in reviewing this new proposal. 


Berkeley resident Henrik Bull is the retired founder of BSA Architects.