By some measures, the office market in Northern Virginia is as bad as it’s been in 25 years. Few companies are expanding and those that are increasingly choose from a small pool of buildings that are within walking distance of public transit, restaurants and other amenities.

Other building owners are weighing whether they should lower rents, wait until demand picks up or — if things get really bad — consider futures for their office buildings other than as office buildings. Among the possible escape clauses one might consider: turning those old office buildings into schools.

About 700 students elementary students began classes last month at 6245 Leesburg Pike, a retrofitted office building in Falls Church. It’s a unique project in a lot of ways but it may not be for long.

“In the D.C. market, the properties that are Class A, that are near Metro or are in Arlington or downtown, are holding their value pretty well,” said Lauren Perry Ford an architect at Cooper Carry. “But anything another notch below that really struggles. So people who might not otherwise be looking around are looking for partners to see how they can put their property to the highest and best use.”

Perry Ford is head of Cooper Carry’s education practice group in its Washington-area office. Most of the group’s work is for colleges and universities. But because of a confluence of circumstances, she said, one of the fastest growing lines of business is in K-12 education.

Many of these conditions came into play in the Leesburg Pike project. For one, the office market in the area is hurting. As bad as things are in the rest of Northern Virginia, they are far worse in the Falls Church-Baileys Crossroads area. The office vacancy rate is 33 percent, 12 points higher than two years ago and two-and-a-half times the rate in the rest of Fairfax County. Space is being vacated far faster than it is being leased up (what the industry calls negative absorption).

But while the office buildings in Falls Church and Baileys Crossroads are increasingly empty, the schools are packed to the brim, thanks to a booming residential population. Last year, Baileys Elementary was 30 percent over capacity, with more than 1,300 students. Overcrowding became such a problem that the school system brought in more than a dozen trailers for expanded classroom space.

So a deal was struck: Fairfax County bought 6245 Leesburg Pike in December for a little more than $9 million. Then came the matter of turning the nearly L-shaped, five-story brick office complex and its surface parking lots into a suitable school for third- through fifth-graders. 

Schools are often required to adhere to more strict safety requirements than offices, Perry Ford said, sometimes requiring upgrades for fire proofing or more accessible fire exits and stairwells.

Classrooms can often be easily partitioned off from office suites. Cooper Carry, hired to retrofit the Leesburg Pike building, created a series of “pods” that allow students of similar grades to either all be on the same floor or to be connected by a stairwell through the floorplate. Principal Marie Lemmon showed them off mid-construction:

Creating more uniquely shaped spaces — gymnasiums, libraries and theaters — can be more difficult. In this case, Cooper Carry built a two-story hybrid theater-library space with stadium seating, as well as a music room with a movable divider that allows for larger performance spaces. It also designed four fitness rooms variously equipped with a ballet bar, rowing machines, a golf simulator and interactive games for Wii and Xbox systems.

A more traditional gymnasium where one could play basketball or volleyball, along with playing fields, will have to be constructed separately later.

The school-in-an-office building idea didn’t go over so hot at the outset with parents.

“They were somewhat concerned at first,” Perry Ford said. “It’s just not the elementary school package that they are used to seeing. But by the end of the project they really kind of embraced it.”

Not every office building would work as a school, even if the economics allow it. But Perry Ford said parents and school officials in urbanizing areas are going to have to become more accustomed to the idea, as those in Manhattan and parts of Chicago already have. It’s too expensive to find available land and build schools from scratch. “They used to be able to get a piece of virgin land and have all the fields they wanted and that’s just not available anymore … no public school district is going to be able to afford that,” she said.

Northern Virginia is one of the areas where the firm is seeing more interest from either developers or local officials interested in office-to-school projects, but it isn’t the only one. In North Atlanta, Cooper Carry turned a former 56-acre IBM office complex into a high school with riverfront views.

In that case, a structured parking lot was retained and new playing fields were plotted on what had been surface parking.

“As they are urbanizing, these areas really do recognize the green space and the parks that they do have, so going vertical is becoming more viable,” she said.

Last month, after the $10 million renovation, the new Baileys Crossroads Upper Elementary School for Arts and Sciences opened its doors.

Fairfax County Public Schools Superintendent Karen Garza showed up to welcome the students on their first day, saying for a county video that, “I think once our community sees inside and sees what wonderful educational spaces can be created in a vertical, five-story building or multi-story building,  I think they’ll be very, very pleased.”

Follow Jonathan O’Connell on Twitter: @oconnellpostbiz