To many architects, the opportunity to redesign a tall, underused space in an old building would represent something of a blank slate. The instinct to fill the area would be strong—to subdivide the interior, add floors, leave some kind of indelible mark. What a team of architects did at Georgia Institute of Technology’s Hinman Research Building, however, was far more unusual—making a 50-foot-high bay functional and sustainable in a light and historically referential way.

Designed in 1939 by the firm of Bush-Brown, Gailey and Heffernan with Paul M. Heffernan as lead designer, the Hinman building takes its cues from the Bauhaus school, with little ornamentation save for a few curving elements and long horizontal bays of windows that are further defined with steel beams. Inside, a high-bay laboratory emphasized functionality with a large crane used to move heavy equipment.

Although the 35,000-square-foot building had been in continuous use by various Georgia Tech units, the university sought to add more studio, laboratory, and event space for the College of Architecture, whose main building was nearby. Lord, Aeck & Sargent (LAS) of Atlanta won the commission through a competitive process in collaboration with Boston-based Office dA. The renovation created graduate architecture studios, research labs, administrative offices, and galleries.

“We all had a commitment to keeping the building’s character-defining features,” says Jack Pyburn, FAIA, director of LAS’s preservation studio and principal in charge of the project. “At Hinman, those features are not all related to material or detail, but also to things like volume. We felt that the historic crane had to be an active part of the building, for example, not just a remnant of the past.”

The central move of the renovation is a new mezzanine or “crib” that is suspended from the historic crane, adding 1,500 square feet of studio space in a visually light and transparent way. The open floor can be reconfigured for various purposes.

“Part of the agenda was to develop a [building for the] school of architecture based on horizontal and vertical flexibility, in a way that respected the authorship of Heffernan,” says Nader Tehrani, former principal at Office dA and now principal of Boston-based NADAAA. “We didn’t try to counter what he did, nor did we want to snuggle up and extend what he did. We developed a parallel logic that worked with his vision.”

The team determined that the renovation could pursue a LEED Gold rating while retaining the building’s historic character. The rating hinged on three main factors: treatment of the building envelope, efficient lighting design, and conditioning of the space. Analyzing the building envelope, for example, revealed that replacing the windows’ 1/4-inch clear glazing with 5/8-inch, low-profile, insulated, clear glass with a high-performance coating would improve energy efficiency over the existing conditions by 15 percent. Yet the team also had to deal with a masonry shell that was inherently leaky.

“We found that there is a disproportionate emphasis put on the window systems of these buildings,” says John Kisner, AIA, project manager for LAS. “Instead of making the building airtight and possibly resulting in some unpredictable behaviors in the wall system, we designed it for some exfiltration.”

The team developed an air-intake, filtration, and ventilation system that relied on occupant-demand carbon dioxide monitors to determine how much fresh air to allow into the building. To minimize the size of the ductwork, the team adopted a decoupled fresh-air system, in which central rooftop handlers provide conditioned fresh air to the building. A second system of local fan coil units provides supplemental heating and cooling to the air already in the building. The ducts for these systems are relatively small and unobtrusive, Kisner says. The mechanical systems were left exposed to keep with Heffernan’s didactic ideals.

“There are not many spaces at our institution that serve so clearly as didactic tools,” says Alan Balfour, dean of the College of Architecture. “Exposing the layers of history and structure throughout the building presents a continual opportunity to discuss strategies of preservation and restoration in all our teaching.”

The designers took advantage of daylighting afforded by the abundant windows, but added programmable and retractable transparent shades. A matrix of pendant lights are designed to be retractable to allow the bay to be adapted for film screenings and other activities. “Standard lighting design manuals say you need 60 footcandles per square foot,” Kisner says. “But we determined that students frequently turned off the lights because they were working on computers. The university let us have a target that was more like 15 footcandles, which was a dramatic reduction in the wattage required.” Students can supplement with task lighting as needed, and occupancy sensors turn off lights when areas are not in use.

In specifying recycled-content and low-VOC materials and finishes, Tehrani says that the team was careful to make cost-effective choices, recognizing that, in a recession especially, a project ought to be economically and socially sustainable in addition to environmentally sound. “Innovation comes in many forms, scales, and materials,” he says. “We recognized that the existing space was one of the most awesome spaces on campus. Now it’s like Grand Central Station.”

“The Hinman building spatially brings students closer to the conceptual heart and spirit of the campus,” says Jason Garza, a master’s in architecture student and president of the Georgia Tech chapter of American Institute of Architecture Students. “It is a physical inhabitation of a traditional campus building using a critical framework of modern design so that students may come together to create a vision for the future.”

Kim A. O’Connell writes about historic preservation and sustainable design from Arlington, Va.