As a design strategy, the conversion of an existing structure makes sense for a number of reasons. There are the financial benefits, often in the form of tax credits, and there are also major environmental benefits to reuse. What’s more, adaptive reuse can work in any geography: urban, suburban, rural; in small and large communities, as long as good-quality historical buildings exist.
So how do you determine whether a building is a good candidate for investment and reuse? To help you better understand the key principles of adaptive reuse, we’ve compiled our take on the benefits and challenges of this type of work, as well as a high-level overview of the process, from selection to completion.
Authenticity is a selling point.
In general, people take pride in knowing that they’re in a space with history, just as they take pride in preserving something for the next one hundred years. As architects and developers, we can all appreciate the craftmanship in some of these historic spaces—details that can’t often be replicated affordably. And as consumers, we can appreciate the authenticity and the value of putting such important assets back into use in a city or community.
Adaptive reuse is better for the environment.
One of the major benefits of reuse is that it’s much more sustainable than tearing down an existing structure and redeveloping the land. By reusing resources that have already been invested in a building—and not manufacturing and transporting new materials—these projects tend to be more thoughtful and more sustainable when it comes to environmental impact.
Cost savings on construction exist.
Another benefit of choosing to renovate over building new is cost savings. Construction costs can be significantly less than starting from scratch and can cut time off the construction schedule, resulting in further cost savings (assuming there are no major discoveries along the way). With the savings, clients can smartly reinvest the resources into other uses like amenities and amenity spaces to attract more interest, smaller hubs of the same use in other local neighborhoods, and even programming.
Tax credits and grants can help bridge the gap.
Encouraging investment in vacant and under-used buildings leads to increased property value, vibrancy, and additional investment by others—hence the availability of tax credits and grants in support of reuse projects. We have many clients come to us and say: “We just can’t get it to pencil out.” At which point we take them through the numbers and the options for creative financing, which can be extremely helpful in bridging the gap.
Listing in the National Register of Historic Places, either individually or as part of the historic district, can provide valuable economic incentives for the rehabilitation of the building. Also, many states have similar tax credit and grant programs that can be coupled with the federal credits to further enhance the viability of the proposed rehabilitation. In Colorado, for example, we have a very extensive preservation fund which distributes approximately $8 million in grants annually to restore historic properties throughout the state, including ranches, railroad depots, town halls, religious structures, and contributing downtown mercantile buildings.
Benefits aside, there are some unique challenges associated with adaptive reuse that clients need to consider when working on the development plan.
Physical restrictions may limit new uses.
Not every older building is a candidate for reuse, and so developers must make sure that they’ll be able to adapt the space in a way that feels modern and inherently usable given the current zoning, property lines, and available adjacent land. Equally important is the physical state of the building, with deteriorated roof conditions and water damage posing some of the biggest challenges. The deterioration of other building components (e.g. original configurations and structural systems, costly mechanical system upgrades, foundation) may also create challenges, limiting possible concepts and configurations.
Required remediation can be costly.
In older structures, especially long-abandoned buildings, contamination can be common as a result of hazardous materials and ACBMs (asbestos containing building materials), lead-based paint, radon, and USTs (underground storage tanks). In such a case, remediation and refurbishment are often required, adding additional costs and time for construction.
Building codes and zoning requirements can be tough to navigate.
Adaptive reuse projects can be tough to manage without the right government relationships and current knowledge of local building codes and zoning requirements. In order to avoid costly mistakes, we often will meet with members of the applicable review agencies on the client’s behalf, walking them through the building, to discuss the overall intent and determine if there are going to be any special issues or requirements. Although all of the SHPOs (State Historic Preservation Offices) utilize the same Secretary of Interior’s Standards for Rehabilitation, they can be interpreted differently from state to state.
How do I know if a building is a good candidate for investment and adaptive reuse?
While there is no one tried-and-true method for determining whether a particular building is a good candidate, developers generally go through a similar set of steps when considering adaptive reuse strategies:
- Conducting a condition assessment—determines whether a building is a good candidate based on its current condition (structural systems and their bearing capacities, foundations, original windows; ability to adapt the current structure to fit end needs including future growth). The assessment includes a field observation to assess existing fixtures, features, and materials; building and accessibility code implications; structural conditions; and to photographically document the current conditions.
- Making rehabilitation recommendations—includes a list of rehabilitation treatments, schematic floor plans, and elevation drawings depicting the proposed improvements. We will also develop a conceptual cost magnitude forecast for the work associated with the rehabilitation recommendations. The proposed rehabilitation recommendations for the building will be designed to comply with the Secretary of Interior’s Standards for Rehabilitation.
- Performing a cost-benefit analysis—an assessment of the financial implications (renovation and preservation costs as opposed to demolition and new construction) can be very helpful early on.
- Assessing the feasibility of redesign—determines how feasible the redesign is based on project goals and intended use for the space. Is the building’s existing layout and structure compatible with the proposed reuse? Will the building’s structure allow access for modernized MEP and technology systems? Will the building’s structure and site allow for the possibility of future growth?
If these factors can be signed off on, there’s a good possibility that the building is a strong candidate for adaptive reuse. But of course, many would argue that the single most significant factor in selecting a candidate for a successful adaptive reuse project is finding a place that is important to people—one that means something to the community—and is, therefore, worth saving with the best knowledge and design strategies available.