From Eyesore to Opportunity: Adapting an Older Building for a New Use
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It is inevitable that structures will age and outgrow their original intended function. With changes in technology and lifestyle, construction design is constantly updated to meet modern demands and older structures are left in the wake of change. Those sensitive to history may prefer to restore older structures to their former glory, however, associated costs often make this plan unrealistic. An alternate concept is adaptive reuse – a process of retrofitting buildings for new uses, which allows structures to retain their historic integrity, while providing for the occupants’ modern needs.
In the pursuit of sustainable development, communities have much to gain from adaptively reusing buildings. Bypassing the wasteful process of demolition and reconstruction alone sells the environmental benefits of adaptive reuse. Environmental benefits, combined with energy savings and the social advantage of recycling a valued heritage place make adaptive reuse an essential component of sustainable development. Historic buildings give us a glimpse of our past, while lending character and serving a new practical purpose in our modern communities. An old factory may become an apartment complex, a run-down church may find new life as a condominium building, or an old office building may be transformed into a vibrant retail facility. In many ways, an adaptive reuse project can invigorate a community by meeting the changing needs of the population.
A Case for Reuse
In today’s economy, does retrofitting an older building really make sense when compared to building new? Quite simply, it depends. There are many considerations. While a restoration or preservation project involves restoring a building to its original state, adaptive reuse actually changes the intent of a structure to meet the modern user’s needs.
Still, some adaptive reuse projects do include restoration of the building’s facade or parts of the interior to look as it did in times past. Older buildings often put a focus on aesthetics that modern buildings simply cannot afford. Built when skilled labor was cheap, these structures often boast a higher attention to detail than those built today. Architectural elements include sculpted stone, columns and capitals, elaborate masonry, vaulted ceilings and carved wood –` all of which can be prohibitively expensive today. Adaptive reuse of such buildings allows for a building to retain much of its character and aesthetics by incorporating these elements into the new framework.
Many structures become candidates for adaptive reuse simply because of their location. In the U.S., especially in the Northeast and Midwest, loft housing is one prominent example. Former industrial areas such as the meatpacking districts in New York City and Philadelphia are now being transformed into residential neighborhoods through creative adaptive reuse projects.
The benefits are plentiful. Adapting old buildings for new uses allows for the preservation of history, the ability to bring new life to and maintain the character of a community, and increases the interest in sustainable or green development. Adaptive reuse has proven to be an effective tool in recycling buildings, conserving land and energy, preserving building materials, reducing sprawl, embracing environmental-responsibility, preserving history and serving as a centerpiece for neighborhood redevelopment initiatives.
The Financial Case
Arguably, the most important factor in the decision to reuse is cost. Whether the owner is private or public, budgets always come into play. As a result, unless the actual goal is historic restoration of a treasured landmark – in which case, the cost of the restoration may very well cost more than a new building – adaptive reuse must be the more cost-effective option or rebuilding will win favor.
Fortunately, there can be many cost advantages to reusing an older structure, such as lower establishment costs. Further, there is little to no demolition required, land acquisition is often less expensive, and many – if not all – of the required utilities and services are already connected and may only need modernization. Also, there are additional savings in the fact that the structure is already in place (material and their corresponding erection costs have already been accounted for in the structure).
Another financial benefit of adaptive reuse projects are tax credits if the project is historic in nature. The Federal Historic Rehabilitation Tax Credit Program provides a 20 percent tax credit on applicable structures. Other local tax credits can apply from location to location.
Regardless of the historic nature of the project, another key consideration early in the process is zoning requirements. Local zoning codes must be researched to ensure the intended use of the structure is permissible. If a zoning change request must be made, it is much easier to address early in the project. Environmental considerations also are crucial to review during this stage.
The Ideal Candidates
Although examples of successful adaptive reuse projects include industrial facilities, factories, strip malls, schools, churches, offices, hotels, condominiums, grocery stores, big box retailers, theaters and other facilities, not all structures are ideal for reuse. What determines if a project is a fit? While there is no checklist of what makes an ideal candidate, the majority will agree that the most important factor is clearly starting with the overall project goal. After clearly identifying the goals for the space, a cost benefit analysis should be performed. In addition to the obvious budget comparisons between demolition/new construction and restoration, evaluate other intrinsic costs or benefits such as marketability.
In addition to the budget comparisons, the success of any adaptive reuse project directly correlates to the quality and expertise of the team performing it. From the onset, the project should involve the owner, a design professional, a restoration contractor, and in the case of historic projects, a historic conservator and the local preservation office. Before looking to the building itself, every attempt should be made to determine its previous repair history, which can be found through maintenance logs, old reports or even through word of mouth. This will give an indication of how the building has performed, and what areas need attention.
After this initial step, in order to accurately determine how elements of the building should be adapted, a structure should receive a complete condition assessment by a design professional, with the aid of a qualified team. This will serve as a guide for the adaptive reuse project, and can help prevent unforeseen and often costly problems down the road. From here, the plan on how best to manipulate the existing footprint can be developed. Finally, the actual work must be performed with high level of expertise and attention to detail.
The Building Envelope
By definition, “envelope” is an encapsulating covering such as an outer shell or membrane. In simple building terms, it consists of the roof, the above grade wall system and the wall system below grade. An envelope’s purpose is to provide protection from external elements, which in building construction means protection from moisture, air and temperature ingress and egress.
In adaptive reuse projects, the building envelope of the structure can be completely replaced, salvaged and preserved, or restored in only specific elements. In many cases, however, the roof, walls, windows and below-grade elements are not reviewed or incorporated into the project unless they are leaking or falling off. The danger is that millions of dollars may be spent during construction and the building stills leaks and has unsafe conditions.
In order to accurately determine how elements of the building envelope should be adapted, a structure should receive a complete condition assessment by a design professional or a design professional teamed with an experienced preplanning team. Key factors to review include the useable life and anticipated replacement value of each component, maintenance history of the systems and components, previous major capitol projects, aesthetic design desires and the impact on the existing structure, as well how long the owner intends to retain the property.
Structural and Mechanical Considerations
In addition to the envelope, one of the most important determiners of reuse success is the structural integrity of the building. Any adaptive reuse or change in use of a building requires a proactive look at the structure. Most buildings were designed to meet the building code in place at the time of construction. And, since codes only certify the minimum requirements for safety, when changing a building’s use, a structural analysis of the strength of the existing materials must be completed. During the process of adaptive reuse, interiors are often completely gutted and replaced with materials and designs better suited to new usage requirements. New floor openings, increased load requirements and complete changes to the overall building structure are very common. These changes often require innovative structural strengthening solutions, which frequently evolve even as the project is taking place.
Structural strengthening also may be necessary. There are many different strengthening techniques that can be tailored to fit the aesthetic, logistic, and economic constraints of a particular project. Fiber Reinforced Polymers (FRP) can be used to increase the capacity of a concrete member by up to 60 percent or more in a profile that is less than ¼-inches thick. Section enlargement and external post-tensioning are also very effective strengthening techniques when space limitations aren’t as tight and the additional capacity requirements are high. Many times these techniques are used in combination to provide an overall strengthening solution that satisfies the many different parameters of a particular project.
In addition to the building’s skeleton, it is crucial to understand the building’s circulatory system by reviewing the mechanical requirements. An energy audit of the existing building will determine strategies for energy use and indoor air quality. The insertion of new insulation may also require new venting for moisture control and new mechanical systems may require additional area on the roof or adjacent to the building.
Many owners are now recognizing the value of the adaptive reuse process– the lower cost of labor and materials as well as the intrinsic value associated with culture and memories that help revitalize our communities. Today’s adaptive reuse also goes beyond retrofitting a structure to make it look as it once did; in many cases, buildings receive a brand new skin that allows the owner to capitalize on the existing structure, while the community benefits from the structure’s facelift. Whether transforming the old into new or refurbishing the old to its original glory, adaptive reuse has a growing place in our communities.
About the Author: Dave Clark is a Project Manager at the Baltimore Branch of Structural Preservation Systems. He graduated from the University of Michigan with a B.S. in Civil Engineering and a minor in Classical Archaeology. In addition to his responsibilities as a Project Manager, Clark is the Vice President of the Association for Preservation Technology, Washington, DC Chapter (APT DC).
Structural Preservation Systems, a leading provider of structural repair, masonry and concrete restoration, strengthening, and protection services with locations throughout the United States, is a subsidiary of Structural Group, based in Baltimore, Maryland. For more information, visit