Adaptive Reuse of Rural Schools & the Effects on Community & Quality of Life

Hillary L'Ecuyer

Kansas State University

Keywords: rural, school, community, development, sustainability, adaptive, interior, design


Access to community amenities is often restricted for rural Americans (Beale & Johnson, 1998; Lapping, 2007). This condition is worsened when rural schools are shut down, causing a detriment to the community's quality of life through the loss of social activities, an economic base, health programs, and an educational center (Diamond, 2013; Richardson, 2000; Lyson, 2002). With rural schools offering a variety of sizes of interior space, there is an opportunity to adapt these spaces for the specific needs of the community (Perkins & Bordwell, 2010; Lachky, 2010). A proposed strategy for planning and design options for school reuse is demonstrated to address the established rural issues and contribute to the quality of life for residents. Ideally, these strategies will conserve our planet's limited building resources, and be a model for revitalized rural community development efforts across the nation.


There has been a growing trend of rural decline in America leaving one-sixth, or 50 million United States citizens, wondering how to best survive and keep his or her community thriving (Lapping, 2007). According to research, "those who live in rural places are among the poorest, least well-provided for—in terms of access to human, educational, social, and health care services—and most inadequately housed of all Americans" (Lapping, 2007). Additionally, many of these are elders with limited mobility. With so many essential services required locally by rural residents to create a high quality of life, new construction of buildings or individually housed services can be too expensive for a community to create and sustain. This is due in part to a limited rural workforce and tax base. These problems are compounded when a rural community's school also closes it's doors (Diamond, 2013). When schools close, like North Central High School in Figure 1, not only is a large source of employment suddenly gone, but the community's source of entertainment, health services, sense of connectedness, and social pride as well.

Figure 1: North Central High School. Retrieved from Morrowville, KS
Facebook page (2013)

Rural schools offer a variety of sizes of interior space, ranging in size from 725 square feet to 1,200+ square feet; therefore, they provide opportunity to adapt space for specific needs of the community (Perkins & Bordwell, 2010). These uses could include functions such as housing, manufacturing, or a mixed-use community center. By adapting each of these already-constructed spaces, the consumption of construction resources can be limited, and the building will once again become an asset for the rural community. Interior designers have an opportunity to understand and accommodate the needs of the community through the redesign of rural schools, adapting each space to provide necessary social, educational, economic, and health resources that will enhance the community's quality of life.

Literature Review & Methodology

The primary method used to explore this issue was a review of scholarly literature with content related to the variables central to rural development and quality of life. Figure 2 (next page) illustrates the process for the review, which began with a broad search and then systematically evaluated the literature by applying review filters. These filters isolated and focused on applicable variables. When starting the search, key topics included rural economy, well-being, and school design. By searching databases such as the general library catalog, SearchIt, Avery Index to Architectural Periodicals, ProQuest Research Library, Academic Search Premier, and Google Scholar, a variety of journal articles, book reviews, essays, and books were located. Within the databases, key words for the initial source search commonly included were: rural, school, amenities, quality of life, community, development, design, re-purpose, patterns of rural decline, and Kansas. Relevance of these materials were then determined by selecting sort filters such as full-text or scholarly/peer-reviewed only, and publication dates more recent than 2000 resulting in 58 sources to be reviewed in depth. A total of 26 resources were used in the development of this paper; eight books, three corporate authors, ten scholarly journal articles, one book review, three theses and dissertations, and one website. Through reviewing these sources and case studies, the author was able to able to gain a better understanding of rural community development and quality of life as well as valuable research that reinforced this paper's thesis. These results were then grouped into six major themes; school design, population trends, elder care, housing, commercial economic survival, and cost of living.

Figure 2:  Process for Literature Review and Analysis. Image Created by Author

Results—An Outlook on Rural America

Commonly perceived issues for rural America's future include declining populations, relocation of businesses to bigger markets, growing travel distances, and rising costs for amenities such as shopping and healthcare services (see Figure 3) (Lachky, 2010; Kendig & Keast, 2010; Chalmers et al, 2012). In addition to these, rural economic policy is often ineffective resulting in limited quality affordable housing.

Figure 3: Example of typical rural American downtown. Retrieved from blogs.usda.gov

Population Trends

The 2000 United States Census Bureau report defined "rural area" as an open countryside or towns of less than 2,500 people outside urbanized areas (as cited in Lachky, 2010). According to Lapping (2007) & Lachky (2010), rural residents constitute about one-sixth (17 percent) of the U.S. population and account for more than 50 million people (see Figure 4).

Figure 4: Rural Percentage of US Population. Chart derived from Lapping (2007) & Lachky (2010)

Historical studies have shown that for the past half-century, "communities in rural America have been declining in size and population; in nearly 70% of the counties of the Great Plains, there are fewer people residing there today than there were in 1950" (Lachky 2010; Deller, Tsai, Marcouiller & English, 2001).  

Figure 5: Rural "Rebound" Graph derived from Bosworth, 2010

Researchers credit this shift in population migration to the greater opportunities for education, growth, and the exchange of ideas in urban areas. However, in recent years, the paradigm has begun to shift, and rural populations have been on the rebound. According to Beale & Johnson (1998), growth began in the 1970s when an influx of newcomers and returnees from metropolitan areas caused rural population to jump by 14 percent. They claimed that, "between 1990 and 1996, the population of America's rural counties grew by nearly three million, or 5.9 percent." (See Figure 5).                                                                

The movement of urban residents to rural environments is referred to as "exurban" (Miller, 2011). When these numbers are combined with another 1.8 million immigrants into rural America (Beale & Johnson, 1998; Lapping, 2007), there suddenly is a large population of American citizens that need support in housing, services, and employment. As rural America currently lacks the building and business infrastructure to handle this influx of population (Beale & Johnson, 1998), it is imperative that changes are made in order to improve the quality of life for the community.

Elder Care and How They Fit Into the Population Picture

According to Lachky (2010) and Schwarzweller & Mullan (1998), the majority of today's older age populations either migrate into small towns or choose to stay in rural places for life.  Accommodating the needs of a growing senior population in rural America is becoming increasingly important as the Baby Boomer (born 1946-1964) generation reaches retirement age (Mack, 2010). Elder populations will then need access to quality healthcare or assisted living services, affordable and accessible housing and amenities, and social events. However, if these essential services are remotely located, elders with mobility issues may be prohibited from reaching the amenities that secure a superior independent lifestyle.

Cost of Living in Rural America

One of the most significant issues facing all of rural America is travel distances to amenities in other freestanding communities. Freestanding communities "are those where the settlement or built-up area of the community is isolated from other communities by an expanse of rural land" (Kendig & Keast, 2010).

These expanses can prove inconvenient for any rural mobile citizen, as they may have to drive hundreds of miles, spending an average of more than 72 minutes on the road for services and shopping (Kendig & Keast, 2010; Beaumont, 2002 as cited in Diamond, 2013). The extra time spent on the road leads to more disposable income being spent on fuel and takes away from time spent relaxing with family, devaluing the commuters' quality of life. Essential services (see Figure 6, next page), need to be made readily available and accessible to all United States residents in order to provide a good quality of life. (Lachky, 2010; Chalmers, Gessner, Venturoni, & Weiler, 2011).

Figure 6: Derived from Chalmers et al. (2011)

The Need for Affordable and Livable Housing

Quality housing is another issue facing rural communities. Decisions regarding housing location are not based solely on the physical structure of the home but often start with a selection of the community's infrastructure, services provided, and social connectedness (Cho, 2005). Additionally, proximity to employment centers is highly desirable as workers do not like to spend time and money on the road driving to work (Olfert & Partridge, 2010).

Commercial Economic Survival in Rural Communities

Economic development and maintenance is another area of focus for rural communities. There is a need to have a variety of capital, as illustrated in Figure 7. Rural poverty is a common issue for small towns (Jackson, 2002 as cited in Lachky, 2010). In order to combat this poverty, there is an urgent need to add new, unique businesses that will draw jobs and customers into the community, thereby improving the tax base and cash flow system. The issue that remains is the lack of support from both the state and federal level. Richardson (2000) agreed, saying that,

"National trends that also contribute to the rural community crisis include decreased federal financial support for rural communities, including support for rural economic development, framing, small rural businesses, and the like. This includes a 66 percent reduction in direct spending since 1980 . . . ."

Figure 7: Diversity in available capital is an important community attribute. Image derived from Schutte (2012)

If local governments can create an effective combination of both place-based and people-based policy, building human capital through education, training, and employment assistance, the decline of rural economies can be reversed (Olfert & Partridge, 2010). Involving business owners through the application of people-based policy in local "soft networks," as illustrated in Figure 8 can be key. Soft networks are collaborations between groups of companies that give the community better access to suppliers, services, markets, information, and innovation outside the immediate area—all essential components in making rural America successful (Federal Reserve, 2001). A successful soft network in rural America could include farm implement retailers, farming operations (feedlots, dairies, and seed dealerships), mechanics, insurance agencies, website/public relations services, and a designated housing center for rural workers. Although rural America has already somewhat adopted this economic structure, it could be more beneficial for labor force stability and community capital purposes to condense individual businesses into one location (Ring, Peredo, & Chrisman, 2009).  

Figure 8: Network of Businesses. Image created by Author

Discussion—The Need for Reuse of Rural Schools

Rural schools, like the one pictured in Figure 9 (next page), are shut down when there is not a large enough tax base to support the district's operating costs (e.g. staff payroll, building maintenance, extracurricular programming, student transportation). If this happens, the neighborhood may lose its sense of community and valuable resources, causing the small towns to decline to a point that they may not be able to survive (Diamond, 2013).  Rural citizens can band together with government officials, business leaders, and designers to create plans to replace lost amenities and services through school reuse. Designers need to pay special attention to these revitalization projects, as they will not only ensure the health, safety, and welfare of rural America but are projects rooted in building sustainability (conservation of physical materials, embodied energy, and cultural history). The next section will examine what services need to be replaced in the community and how the rural school infrastructure lends itself to reuse.

According to Diamond (2013) and (Keen, n.d.), "from 2008 to 2010, 3,337 elementary and secondary schools closed, many of which were in small communities . . . ." One of the biggest roles schools play in rural America is providing employment to rural residents. Twenty-three percent of the nation's public school workforce, or 740,000 teachers, are located in rural areas of the United States (Beesley, 2011). Creating effective economic purposes that the abandoned interiors can serve is now more important than ever in order to ensure the community's financial welfare.

Figure 9: Example of Rural School. Image retrieved from Morrowville, KS Facebook page

Loss of Economic Services for the Community

The school is often the social hub of the village, and if closed, will destroy the community and many adults' sense of survival (Lyson, 2002). Without schools, rural communities will no longer have opportunities for social interaction and business growth through sporting events, arts and theatre productions, and other community-focused events (like the dance marathon pictured in Figure 10) that the school would host. Diamond (2013) elaborated this point in her case study, stating that business owners in Lovington, Illinois, "knew that without having multiple high schools in the community, the rivalries that drew in crowds for sporting events that ended up supporting the local businesses would not exist." By incorporating multi-function spaces that can host a variety of social and recreational events into a renovation, some of the lost social interactions can be infused back into the community.

Figure 10: Example of social life supported through rural schools. Image retrieved from Fanning/Howey Associates (1995)

Loss of Community Health Services

Figure 11: Image Retrieved from http://worldonline.media.clients.ellingtoncms.com 

The last major function that schools serve in rural communities is a center for healthcare services. Ranging from nutrition programs (ones like Kansas' BackSnack Program, Figure 11) to opening fitness facilities to the public, the school works to improve the community's quality of health. Many school administrations recognize the importance of this function by providing food banks, health screenings, and various daycare programs (Fanning/Howey Associates, 1995). If a school is to close, the few health services that are in the community are suddenly gone, and the overall quality of life suffers.

Applying Rural Needs; Existing Infrastructure to Adaptive Reuse

Part of the mission to be sustainable is conserving or reusing materials and resources during building projects. As Schutte (2012) pointed out in his research, ". . . there are underutilized assets available in the community that can be transformed to generate additional resources, or improve existing ones, to achieve a desired outcome." Communities should not waste valuable resources by building new structures if a functional resource is already in place and only needs to be adapted for new social, environmental, and economic purposes (Figure 12). A closed rural school is one such asset that can be transformed, as these buildings and sites offer a plethora of space and existing amenities that inherently support the needs of the community. According to Earthman (2009), school buildings are situated on lots ranging from ten acres (plus one acre for every 100 students) to 30 acres (plus one acre for every 100 students). Having this real estate available for repurpose will allow businesses to exist side-by-side but grow if demand for goods and services increase.

Figure 12 Adapted from http://www.berkshireschool.org

Interior space is also an important factor in planning for school reuse. Earthman (2009) explained that many states require the classrooms in their schools to have a minimum of anywhere from 720 square feet to 850 square feet. These are minimum guidelines; many interiors are much larger (i.e., gymnasium, music classroom). Schools often hold other features that could serve a valuable function for the community, such as the kitchen and cafeteria, fitness rooms, and the library. Having a variety of space in a community center will give the community freedom to program differing sizes and types of businesses and services into one easily accessible building. 

These buildings will already have access to essential amenities such as central HVAC and broadband Internet, a privilege usually reserved for schools, classrooms, health care providers, and libraries (Federal Reserve, 2001). When this special access is combined with having "the basic provisions of receiving and sending voice, video, and data signals throughout the building and outside of the building," rural areas are now much less isolated than they were only a few decades ago (Earthman, 2009; Beale & Johnson, 1998).

Ever-evolving technology and workplaces are requiring businesses to stay current in their knowledge and technical training, driving a need for adult education classes. The classrooms in schools are equipped to meet these and other community needs, as they have adequate furniture and media equipment that would help facilitate programs (Fanning/Howey Associates, 1995). The more educational opportunities, usable space, and functional equipment available to residents, the stronger the community's soft networks will be and the more prepared the residents will be to make effective, positive changes to their quality of life.

Considering the issues facing rural America and the existing infrastructure in abandoned rural schools, it is clear that there is an opportunity for interior designers to create plans for interior reuse that helps address health, safety, and welfare needs in communities. While there are many viable reuse options when combining these approaches, there are three (3) main ideas that could be the most useful to rural communities: a housing center, a manufacturing center, and a mixed-use community center.

Rural School Buildings as Housing Centers

According to Fitchen's case studies (1991; 1994; 1995; cited in Foulkes, 2005), poor (rural) places need to have an adequate supply of rental housing at relatively inexpensive rents in order to attract migrants. If designers can turn classrooms into affordable housing units, and public spaces such as cafeterias and libraries into community-centered amenities, the once-abandoned school may soon become a good housing solution for retiring elders with limited mobility or low-income families. This type of renovation project has already proved successful in Mahaska, Kansas, where the school is now a housing center serving as an affordable housing option for work .

Figure 13: Image Retrieved from Baskerville (2010)

Figure 14: Base Plan Retrieved from http://www.3waldens.com. Author's Own Schematic. (Click to view)

Figure 14 is an author-created schematic that proposes neighborhoods within the building supported by amenity-filled living experience to both building residents and the public.

Rural School Buildings as Manufacturing Centers

Figure 15: Example of a rural school converted to manufacturing center. Image retrieved from Baskerville (2010)

Multiple research studies have indicated that recently in rural communities, a number of small-scale manufacturing plants have become operational, including a toolmaker, food processing, clothing manufacturers, auto parts makers, and an assembler of first-aid kits (Beale & Johnson, 1998; Lachky, 2010). Housing these plants in the large spaces in the building, such as the gymnasium, with business support or web-based services in the surrounding classrooms and public spaces, is a good use of the space and amenities left behind in schools. This approach has been successful in Haddam, Kansas; there is a honey packaging plant in the cafeteria in the old elementary school, as seen in Figure 15 (Baskerville, 2010). In Cuba, Kansas; the gymnasium in the old high school is now home to a flatbed and grain trailer manufacturing center, (RCED, 2012).

Figure 16: Base Plan Retrieved from http://www.3waldens.com, Author's Own Schematic (Click to view)

Figure 16 illustrates one schematic proposal for organizing the abandoned school's space to fulfill economic needs in the community.

Rural School Buildings as Mixed-Use Centers

Studies conducted by Melaville (1998, as cited in Hiatt-Michael, 2003) show that the most successful reuse projects include four major approaches to redesign: services reform (access to health clinics, support to families); youth development (after-school mentoring, leadership/career development); community development (enhancing social, economic, and physical capital); and education reform (improving curriculum and engagement). Considering this, along with Richardson's 2000 case study of Fairfield, Vermont, it is likely that a community center that hosts a variety of functions may be the most successful reuse project. In Fairfield, Richardson identified a group of women (Figure 17) who secured a government seed grant and volunteered to remodel their local abandoned school into a center for "cradle to grave" services. With the addition of a full health clinic, a satellite center of the local hospital, the town's Senior Citizen program, after-school and summer programs for children, adult basic education classes and several other programs, the town was described as reinvigorated and better connected with the entire region (Richardson, 2000).

Figure 17: Image Retrieved from Richardson (2000)

As illustrated in Figure 18, renovated buildings could include health and recreational facilities, leasable space for internet-based or microbusinesses, elder-based food, housing, and social programs (i.e., Meals on Wheels), and city administration and community meeting space.

Figure 18: Base Plan Retrieved from http://www.3waldens.com, Author's Own Schematic (Click to view)

Research Limitations

Executing more action research is recommended to fully understand what services rural communities require and what should be included when programming and renovating abandoned school buildings. However, many limitations must be considered when approaching this additional research. It can be difficult to cover sprawling rural geography in a relatively short amount of time in order to ensure that data are current and relevant. Getting rural communities to buy in and participate with the research project is another considerable obstacle to overcome. Without the community's participation and consent, data would be unobtainable.

Implementation is also a challenge. State and national school boards need to be proactive for the communities that they serve, even after closing schools. Getting a long-term plan in place for these buildings will cost time, money, and cooperation between local communities and bureaucracy. It will truly be a group effort to effect the changes to communities and policies suggested by this author.


When schools, the social and economic lifeblood of rural communities in the United States are closed, the community quality of life suffers. The community's center is suddenly gone, but instead of letting the community spiral into an irrevocable decline, there is an option for renewal, for growth. Repurposing rural schools potentially allows businesses, manufacturing, educational services, elder resources, and social and recreational amenities to be combined as an effective solution for fulfilling community needs that are not currently being met. This new center of activity can serve as a revitalization of the economy and the social scene, drawing new residents and businesses into areas that have a strong support system and sense of community that is embraced by residents. Providing rural residents with the services that they require to have strong physical, mental, and emotional well-being is one of the most important considerations when tackling any renovation project. If the designer is able to accomplish this while giving new life to a structure to which many residents may have an emotional connection, the renovation becomes an even greater success and even more significant to the community's way of life.


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Beale, C.L. & Johnson, K.M. (1998). The rural rebound. The Wilson Quarterly, 22(2), 16. Retrieved from: http://go.galegroup.com/ps/i.do?id=GALE%7CA20567391&v=2.1&u=ksu&ii=r&p=AONE&sw=w

Beesley, A. (2011). Keeping rural schools Up to speed. The Journal, 25(7). Retrieved from: http://thejournal.com/Articles/2011/10/04/ruralresearch.aspx?p=1

Chalmers, K., Gessner, M., Venturoni, L., & Weiler, S. (2011). Stemming retail leakage with a sense of community: Leveraging the links between communal ties and shopping decisions. The Social Science Journal, 49(2012), 108-113. Retrieved from: http://www.sciencedirect.com.er.lib.k-state.edu/science/article/pii/S0362331911000954#

Cho, S.H., Newman, D.H., & Wear, D.N. (2005). Community choices and housing demands: A spatial analysis of the southern Appalachian highlands. Housing Studies, 20(4), 549-569. DOI: 10.1080/02673030500114433

Deller, S.C., Tsai, T.H., Marcouiller, D.W., & English, D.B.K. (2001). The role of amenities and quality of life in rural economic growth. American Journal of Agricultural Economics, 83(2), 352-365. DOI: 10.1111/0002-9092.00161

Diamond, C. (2013). Neighborhood and school connection: Examining the importance of schools on neighborhoods, community development, and the housing market (Master's thesis). Retrieved from: http://cardinalscholar.bsu.edu/bitstream/123456789/197232/1/DiamondC_2013-2_BODY.pdf

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Figures & Images

Figure 1: Closed School in Morrowville, KS. Image Retrieved from: https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=568974399801844&set=pb.566682043364413.-2207520000.1385938964.&type=3&theater
Figure 2: Literature Review Process. Image Created by Author.
Figure 3: Rural Main Street. Image Retrieved from: http://blogs.usda.gov/2013/06/17/new-investment-to-kick-off-national-small-business-week/
Figure 4: Rural Population Pie Graph. Image Created by Author, with information derived from Lapping, M.B. (2007) and Lachky, S.T. (2010).
Figure 5: Migration Bar Graph. Image Created by Author, with information derived from Bosworth, G. (2010).
Figure 6: Necessary Amenities Chart. Table Derived from Chalmers, et al (2011).
Figure 7: Community Capital Graphic. Image Derived from: Schutte, N.J. (2003).
Figure 8: Soft Network Illustration. Image Created by Author.
Figure 9: Panorama of Closed School; Morrowville, KS. Image Retrieved from: https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=570170216348929&set=a.566703070028977.1073741827.566682043364413&type=3&theater
Figure 10: Elders at Community Event. Image Retrieved from: Fanning/Howey Associates, Inc. (1995).
Figure 11: BackSnack Organizer. Image Retrieved from: http://worldonline.media.clients.ellingtoncms.com/img/photos/2010/06/16/backsnack_ka_01_t180.JPG?370a03faaa4bde2115f371a02430eb3e6a451be5
Figure 12: Sustainability Ven Diagram. Image Retrieved from: http://www.berkshireschool.org/page.cfm?p=1166.
Figure 13: Mahaska, KS Housing. Image Retrieved from: Baskerville, R.A. (2010).
Figure 14: Prototype Housing Plan. Created by Author. Base Plan Retrieved from: http://www.3waldens.com/images/SJHS%20Floor%20Plan.jpg
Figure 15: Haddam, KS Manufacturing. Image Retrieved from: Baskerville, R.A. (2010)
Figure 16: Prototype Manufacturing Plan. Created by Author. Base Plan Retrieved from: http://www.3waldens.com/images/SJHS%20Floor%20Plan.jpg
Figure 17: Fairfield, VT Renovation Volunteers. Image Retrieved from: Richardson, J. (2000). Partnerships in communities: Reweaving the fabric of rural America. Washington, DC: Island Press.
Figure 18: Prototype Mixed-Use Plan. Created by Author. Base Plan Retrieved from: http://www.3waldens.com/images/SJHS%20Floor%20Plan.jpg


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