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Experts Discuss Adaptive Reuse and Renovation


The following are additional responses to questions posed to contributors of the January/February article on adaptive reuse and renovation. Click here for our feature article on the topic.

Question: Is a historical building more or less desirable, given restrictions or objections that may apply to landmarked buildings? That is, do restrictions also have an impact on buildings that are not officially landmarked or which are being restored with strict historical accuracy?

Answer: When dealing with a registered historic building, the project must meet the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Rehabilitation. These standards implement limitations on building use and materials, as well as chemicals used during the rehabilitation process. They also require that distinctive materials, features, finishes, construction techniques, and examples of craftsmanship be preserved.

Another challenge faced with the rehabilitation of historic buildings is historic-preservation easements. The easements are intended to establish requirements and restrictions that will preserve the historic nature of the building or site. Often, this means that the demolition of historic structures may be limited, strict maintenance requirements may need to be adhered to in order to prevent or reduce deterioration, additions and subdivisions of land may be prohibited, and historic setting and landscape features may be protected. Finally, permits and landmark issues can also take years to resolve. The unforeseen conditions are the most substantial obstacles for most adaptive-reuse projects. Despite the unknowns, the pros far outweigh the cons if one assumes that building materials will continue to become more expensive. And, despite the additional planning and approvals that are required when working on an historical or landmarked property, many are finding that the investment pays off both economically and culturally. — Clay Aurell, AIA, principal Josh Blumer, AIA, principal, AB Design Studio Inc., Santa Barbara, CA

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Answer: The only restrictions relevant to historic buildings are associated with the pursuit of tax credits or if the building is landmarked in a jurisdiction that requires design or demolition review. The point of the tax credits has never been to make a building project cheaper, but to help the owner fund costs associated with doing the work the right way. In other words, tax incentives encourage owners to do work associated with the preservation of the building they may otherwise choose not to do.

For example, an owner might choose to paint historic masonry rather than properly clean and preserve it – a move with serious negative impacts on its historic and monetary value. An owner might choose to replace historic plaster finishes with drywall, replace historic windows with new windows, or cover up a historic feature such as ornamental wood, stone, or plaster, rather than repair it.

An architect brings insight to these discussions by understanding the value of historic features and how best to treat them within a given budget.

Other restrictions associated with renovations are no different for historic buildings than for nonhistoric buildings. The owner may have to adapt to the existing floor plan, but those same challenges often give birth to wonderful, creative solutions and add uniqueness to the design. Often the unique character of a space, combined with creative problem-solving, result in a space that is superior to a new space.

Example from KETV Burlington Station renovation. In this project, tax credits strongly encouraged the owner to make historically sensitive design decisions that directly improved the value of their asset. — Sheila Ireland, AIA, NCARB, LEED AP, senior associate, senior architect, Leo A Daly, Omaha, NE

Question: What are the factors that make it economically feasible? Location, structural integrity, history, etc. In other words, is it worth it?

Answer: By preserving the majority of the existing building’s structure, one can significantly save on the design, material, and construction costs. However, the addition of steel reinforcement beams, ties, or connections to supporting beams and foundation can be a significant cost, so finding a building that is a structurally adaptable fit for the final use is crucial. To create an accurate construction budget, a thorough inspection during due diligence must be performed to assess whether a complete retrofit of systems, such as plumbing, wiring, and ventilation, will be required to meet building code.

Possible funding opportunities and tax credits include federal and local incentives that are available to make adaptive-reuse projects more attractive and advantageous to developers and investors.

Location, location, location! Attracting the community to once-depressed areas requires incentives such as proximity to transit; ample parking; access to retail, restaurants, and attractions; and a general movement toward continued sustainable development.

So long as there are financial incentives, the location is right, and architects and developers have performed their pre-development homework, adaptive reuse can be more economically advantageous and lucrative than greenfield projects. — Clay Aurell, AIA, principal, Josh Blumer, AIA, principal, AB Design Studio Inc., Santa Barbara, CA

Answer: When rehabbing an existing historic building, the owner has access to highly valuable design features at a fraction of the cost. For a shockingly small amount of investment, we can have spaces of a level of quality and artisanship that may not even be possible, let alone financially feasible, today.

For a recent project, we compared the cost of preserving a stone mosaic tile floor with the cost of carpet and what it would cost to install the same floor in a new building today. The cost to stabilize the floor (which was built to last) was less than 10 dollars per square foot. A bit more than a low-cost carpet tile. We estimated it would be at least fifty dollars per square foot to purchase the materials and install the same floor today. Being able to tell the owner that their $10,000 investment will result in a $50,000 floor is a pretty strong argument for historic preservation.

An old building comes with stories and a history that have meaning to the community. In our modern world of brand development, an existing story is a huge asset. By sharing those existing stories and building on them, an owner can really add value to their investment.

Example from KETV Burlington Station: The adaptive reuse of Burlington Station as the broadcast headquarters for KETV-7 was a cause celebre in Omaha when it opened in 2016. After nearly 40 years of vacancy and decay, the historic train station that contributed so much to Omaha’s story was back, put into use telling the stories of Omaha. The design approach, which exposes layers of history in juxtaposition to new elements, honors KETV’s journalistic mission to tell Omaha’s stories. One of our favorite parts of this project is the “Lunch Lady,” a graffiti mural created during the building’s vacant period. By preserving this as a piece of art, the building reminds the reporters of their obligation to uncover and show what might otherwise be concealed. (That kind of storytelling can’t be made up, but it’s the kind of thing that makes an adaptive reuse exciting.) — Sheila Ireland, AIA, NCARB, LEED AP, senior associate, senior architect, Leo A Daly, Omaha, NE

Answer: Certain trades are lost. We can’t re-create types of craftsman work as it was originally executed. That’s why there are many trusts created solely to pursue preservation of the existing historic wealth in urban cores from a both historic and economic standpoint. And, of course, in some cases there’s more than goodwill to allow these incredible creations from the past to continue to be part of our cities.

Creating built environments used to be viewed with all the respect that a piece of art would have. It was a much longer process through the ages. More heart and effort went into it. Now, we live in a time when technology has advanced to such a point that the creation of new structures has become to some extent frivolous activity. Buildings are given a 20-year lifespan, where people used to build for 100 years or for the ages ahead.

As architects, we must view the built environment around us from a different angle. We have to accept every task and every client commission not just as a new project, but as a commission, that has to remain. When we approach design from that perspective, we accept and embrace the principles of built-in flexibility and consequentially our design process is elevated to a new level of planning sophistication, where the newly created building structures will have a longer-term success rate. And when we apply that thinking to a historic property, we create incredible value. — Irena Savakova, RIBA, LEED AP BD+C, vice president, director of design, Leo A Daly, Washington

Question: Are factors such as sustainability, energy efficiency, walkability, etc. major considerations in choosing a building to retrofit or adapt?

Answer: Energy: It is a myth that old buildings are inherently less efficient than new construction. Buildings constructed prior to the advent of modern heating and cooling systems had these functions built into the architecture. More recent buildings – 50s and later – may not offer this advantage and may or may not outperform new construction, but architecturally there is no evidence to suggest that they would perform worse if efficiency was considered during the renovation.

Sustainability: Throwing into a landfill the energy (both human and fuel-based) that went into creating an existing structure is the definition of unsustainable practice. Renew, Reuse, Recycle. In that order.

Older buildings, because they are often in older neighbors with infrastructure created prior to the dominance of the automobile, also tend to be more walkable and have better access to mass transportation services.

Example from Knights of Columbus headquarters, New Haven, CT: This project preserved an architectural icon, while addressing structural damage and drastically improving energy efficiency. Retrofitting the curtain-wall systems required a high level of expertise from the design team, but paid off in enhanced U value and R value. The collective upgrades resulted in $196,000 annually in energy cost savings and a very happy client.

Example from the Historic Corcoran Gallery in Washington: Historic preservation is a specialized task, but a gifted architectural team can employ high-tech methods to truly deliver value to a retrofit. Without a robust set of existing condition drawings, we utilized a number of methods and specialized tools to develop a Data Eco System – including laser surveying and point cloud model assembly; hygrothermal wall analysis, Ground-Penetrating Radar, and CCT Camera Surveying – to compile a highly-detailed BIM model without destruction of property. (See supplemental “Corcoran Modern Technology” document). — Sheila Ireland, AIA, NCARB, LEED AP, senior associate, senior architect, Leo A Daly, Omaha, NE

Question: Is adaptive reuse equally applicable to urban locations and suburban or rural venues? Are there differences?

Answer: Adaptive reuse is applicable in any setting where aging structures are no longer being utilized. Urban flight encourages adaptive reuse in urban areas, requiring investors to find niche properties for development. Whether urban or rural, many communities want to maintain the historic fabric of their cities. We can transform an eyesore into a breathing piece of real estate that rejuvenates an entire neighborhood and adds life back into old, vacant properties. — Clay Aurell, AIA, principal, Josh Blumer, AIA, principal, AB Design Studio Inc., Santa Barbara, CA

Answer: Adaptive reuse is a slam-dunk in most urban and even suburban locations. It can be more challenging for smaller projects or in smaller communities. Two issues are use and funding. Many small communities have remarkably intact main streets that struggle to find new uses for the properties as population shrinks. This is especially true for communities that are outside of a reasonable commute to a larger urban area.

If a good use is available, it can be difficult to find businesses willing to invest in the project or even to buy tax credits. Smaller-scale projects can be more difficult for experienced interests to take on profitably and inexperienced interests simply don’t have the know-how to leverage the potential funding sources (historic, TIF, new markets, etc).

A knowledgeable architect can help small municipalities navigate these potential funding sources, and bring outside-the-box ideas for reuse and revitalization. In many ways, the most valuable capital and social assets a small town has is its unique and historic identity. This can be leveraged in a variety of ways to improve economic prospects. It’s imperative that they have access to these best practices and steer clear of the short-term rip-it-down and build new mentality.

Example from Owatonna Public Utilities: When the Straight River flooded in 2010, the town of Owatonna, MN, (pop 25k) went to great lengths to preserve and repurpose one of their architectural treasures, a brick Italianate power plant, into offices for the utility company. Significant work was done to prevent future flooding, and the plant’s cavernous interior was retrofit into a unique set of office spaces that express the story of Owatonna, and the power plant’s critical role in the town’s history. — Sheila Ireland, AIA, NCARB, LEED AP, senior associate, senior architect, Leo A Daly, Omaha, NE

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