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Renovation and Adaptive Reuse...A Smart Alternative
By G. Frederick Bonsall, AIA

Suburban Sprawl remains a great concern even in the twenty-first century, leaving an ever-increasing trail of empty and discarded buildings, many in the heart of some of the oldest business centers. America’s love of the automobile has created growing traffic and parking problems. Cities have tried to cope with this trend by constructing parking garages convenient to the city centers, but this has come at the expense of much demolition, dramatically changing the scale of community streetscapes.

Amazingly, Europe has dealt with this problem in a far different way by caring for and repairing their centuries’ old buildings, buying and driving smaller automobiles, many times parking them on side walks. By contrast, every square inch seems to be of use. The people are much more eager to adapt their lifestyle to existing conditions. Even after years of war, buildings are often carefully and painstakingly rebuilt to original standards. They are considered to be valued treasures; to be cared for and passed on to future generations.

In America, however, if a building doesn’t suit the thinking of its user, he will build a new one that hopefully will. Usually, though, in a few years, it doesn’t. They tend to be of the economical construction and further the trend of an average thirty-year life cycle.

As an alternative to our ever-increasing throw-away society, renovation and adaptive reuse are significant ways in which to breathe new life into our communities. They will, however, almost always are accompanied with challenges of higher costs and code compliance, but if anticipated early on, can be successfully dealt with through some careful planning and creativity. But in any case, expect the unexpected since it is next to impossible to guess beyond what you can physically see without at least some exploratory evaluation. An old boiler system and its piping will most certainly contain asbestos. This, of course, must be abated and will constitute an additional expense. Old wiring and plumbing is a must to be removed as well. Another component is the roof, which should most likely be replaced. Storm windows or new doubled-glazed windows will need to be added to conform to improved energy standards.

Probably the most challenging aspect of the renovations is dealing with modern day building codes, intended primarily for new construction, and leaving little tolerance for existing characteristics like open stairwells and steeper stairs. Intended to provide a safe means of egress in times of fire or panic, they usually require more space than what normally exists. Additional problems can occur when trying to comply with ADA requirements, even though some flexibility for existing structures is provided. Not only do they require additional area (leaving less for the intended use), there is a higher cost for remediation.

The higher costs and longer lead times for compatible materials must be taken into account during the initial planning stages. In some cases, variances may be needed, requiring additional planning time. Early discussions with local authorities are almost a given requirement for the eventual success of the project. Gaining this governmental support can be invaluable when applying for financial help. The investigation as to historical significance of a building may allow certain features to remain as long as alternative solutions can be provided for accessibility and safe evacuation.

Our present day economy is playing havoc with office space. Mergers, buy-outs and restructuring affect many more companies than ever before, precipitating relocation or downsizing. Advancements in computer technology demand constant upgrades in building infrastructures. Until wireless connections are per-fected, the need for more versatile wiring will continue to grow. Mechanical system ductwork has always been an issue, and continues to grow in size, as occupants demand more controlled air quality. This, along with sprinkler systems, has led to greater floor-to-floor heights in new buildings, while presenting challenges in older buildings.

Life in the office is changing as well. Employees are more mobile, sometimes working from outside the company’s walls, and then returning to a personal space for a short time before regrouping again into an interactive grouping. Furniture companies have responded by offering mobile components such as work surfaces and files that can easily be drawn into a group setting or pulled across the room for a different task. Again, power, telephone and lighting must be designed to accommodate these moves. This “fluid” type of space tends to provide an atmosphere in which the occupants are happier, healthier and more productive.

Sometimes, by just standing back and examining a building’s unique features or details, a design direction can be established which enhances its new use and provides a truly unique environment for its occupants. This could include anything from the grand scale of an old downtown department store, to the openness of an abandoned warehouse; the detail of a failing theater or the stateliness of a bank no longer functioning in its pre-described manner of financial transactions.

Although much of the above sounds quite negative, nothing could be further from the truth. Proper Programming is the key, factoring in these conditions early, as opposed to dealing with them as “problems” later in the course of the project. They must become priorities and be given the same importance as the desired attributes and final use of the facility. Furthermore, the success of adaptive reuse and renovation will hold a higher place in everyone’s hearts, since an old “friend” has been saved.

G. Frederick Bonsall is registered to practice architecture in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New York, and is certified by the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards. His professional commissions have included many commercial design projects for office buildings, office interiors, medical offices and financial institutions, as well as hospitality and recreational facilities. He served as president of the Eastern Pennsylvania Chapter of the AIA in 1982, and is currently Chairman of the Historic Architectural Review Board for the City of Bethlehem. He attended Pennsylvania State University and received his BFA degree from the Philadelphia College of Art in 1966.

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