What’s old can be new

Proponents have dubbed it the ultimate form of recycling. Across the country it’s the inspiration behind countless restoration projects, in buildings running the gamut from empty schools to derelict railroad depots to abandoned airplane hangars.

Adaptive reuse is the process of modifying old structures for new municipal purposes. When the original use of a structure changes or is no longer required, designers and planners change the primary function of the structure, while retaining some of the architectural details that make the building unique.

Over the years, the concept has become an increasingly popular way of effectively redeveloping underutilized municipal properties — and a viable alternative to building demolition. It’s inevitable that particular buildings will outlive their original purposes; adaptive reuse ensures these empty structures remain important parts of the community for years to come.

Feasibility studies

Before any municipality launches a proposed adaptive reuse project it should conduct a complete feasibility study. This way all expectations, needs, and possibilities are clearly established, saving the structure from being the victim of flawed property planning.

The feasibility study should involve asking a number of vital questions. For example, are there community needs that will be met by repurposing the building? Does the municipality have the necessary funds (or access to outside funds) to underwrite the cost of the conversion? If the conversion is done by the municipality itself, will it be in a position to manage the service provided in the repurposed building?

A feasibility study will also determine if a structure is suitable for repurposing. For example, in the adaptive reuse of schools, it is important to differentiate between buildings that are not entirely of a wood frame construction (which may pose structural issues if repurposed) and those buildings with an interior wooden flooring system and exterior masonry load-bearing walls (which do not pose structural issues). A feasibility study would determine if this is the case.

Finally, one of the most important questions a feasibility study should ask is: will the adaptive reuse project be economically viable? It is imperative that the repurposed structure be an integrated, productive, and useful part of the community landscape. The true adaptive reuse success stories are those involving repurposed buildings that actively contribute to the neighbourhood in which they are situated.

The next steps

The feasibility study is complete; a new use for the structure has been determined. What’s next? In many instances, a municipality will select a development team, which will help create a useful design, complete the adaptive reuse project quickly and efficiently, and keep total costs under control.

It’s also highly recommended that a professional construction manager be contacted to oversee the adaptive reuse project. The manager’s role will include serving as an advisor to the municipality, and providing information on various construction technology, constructability issues, scheduling, markets, and total costs. The construction manager may also assist the town or city with identifying early purchases or those items with long lead-time, as well as coordinating the completion of biddings and negotiations.

Municipalities should also encourage the public to participate in the designing and planning phases of the adaptive reuse project. Public meetings give members of the community the opportunity to review any relevant project issues, as well as state what solutions they feel will work best. By empowering local residents to become involved, designers and planners raise public support for their adaptive reuse projects. Also, public participation often leads to creative suggestions that can be incorporated into the design.

Many different elements

So what will your standard adaptive reuse project entail? For starters, a building undergoing repurposing process may have new life safety systems added, as well as new air conditioning systems and seismic upgrades. It can involve the new installation of technology wiring, as well as new electrical, plumbing, heating, and fire protection infrastructure. There may also be a redesign of the building’s interior, while making efforts to retain original materials and spaces. In some cases, that means retaining a significant portion of the building’s existing shell, including the façade and interior support timbers.

Other adaptive reuse improvements may include new windows and roofs, as well as upgrades to parking areas, and storm drainage and retainage systems. Also, work may be undertaken to ensure the structure complies with modern day requirements, such as the analysis and cleanup of hazardous materials like asbestos or lead.

Finally, many adaptive reuse projects incorporate renewable energy technologies and other energy efficient measures. This can include high-efficiency furnaces, high levels of insulation, high efficiency fibreglass windows, bamboo flooring, and paints with low volatile organic compound levels.

The benefits

Adaptive reuse can provide municipalities with many economic benefits. Repurposing an existing building means there’s no need to construct a building with new materials. Money spent on site preparation, demolition, hazardous waste disposal, and purchase of construction materials will be saved. Also, adaptive reuse can lead to social and economic revitalization. For example, the repurposed building can be the site of new businesses, stimulating the economy and creating jobs. Adaptive reuse can also help increase property values, as well as enhance quality of life and a sense of neighbourhood pride.

A smart alternative

A neighbourhood’s personality is often defined by its buildings, and as such the demolition of a building can create an emotional hole in a community. If handled correctly, converting an empty building into one that features public-serving and community-enhancing functions can fill that hole. Giving an old structure a new use — and in effect, a new lease on life — is a smart alternative to building demolition.



Rich Griffin and Tom Scott are partners in the Waltham, Massachusetts-based architectural firm Scott/Griffin Architects, Ltd. The firm can be found at www.pga-architects.com.

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