Adaptive reuse: Much more than historic preservation

Repurposing old buildings for retail, restaurants, and housing is more than cost-effective. In many cases, it’s helping revitalize blighted neighborhoods and communities.

By Donna Miller, PE, PEng, LEED AP, WD Partners June 27, 2016

One of the most popular landmarks in San Francisco is Ghirardelli Square. The building started its life as Pioneer Woolen Mill before it was purchased in the mid-1800s by Domingo Ghirardelli and turned into a chocolate-manufacturing facility. In 1960, the plant closed and the building was purchased by civic-minded investors who feared it would be torn down.

Today, Ghirardelli Square enjoys its third distinctive life as a tourist destination, with popular dining and retail offerings. It’s considered one of the first successful adaptive reuse projects in the country, a concept that calls for retrofitting an existing building for an entirely new purpose.

The roots of adaptive reuse

Repurposing existing buildings is an offshoot of a movement that began in the mid-60s when the National Historic Preservation Act was passed to slow the destruction of historic buildings. Developers, architects, and engineers had to figure out the best way to preserve culturally significant buildings while updating the structures to meet current code and development standards and incorporate modern systems like air conditioning.

Adaptive reuse is much more than restoration and preservation, however. In its truest form, this concept seeks to give a building new life—an updated raison d’être—to meet the needs of contemporary users. Depending on the building and its intended new use, adaptations might include gutting the interior, adding structural modifications, updating the building envelope, replacing the mechanical systems, and adding technology infrastructure.

But a repurposed building doesn’t mean it has to completely lose its identity, even if it’s morphing from the country’s first indoor shopping mall, like Arcade Providence in Rhode Island. Built in 1828, it has been converted to a mixed-used building with 48 micro-apartments, dining, and retail. Striking architectural features, such as Greek revival columns, granite walls, and intricate carvings, are cost-prohibitive today for most budgets—but can be salvaged and incorporated into an adaptive project to maintain the building’s original flavor without hindering its new use.

Of course, adaptive reuse extends beyond storied structures to the common and even mundane buildings that dot our landscape. Indeed, many dead shopping malls, vacant Circuit City stores, and other abandoned big-box buildings across the country have been reused in such disparate ways as an indoor race track, hockey rink, library, charter school, medical building, and senior center. These adaptations can often provide a catalyst for regrowth in neighborhoods and communities negatively impacted by the last recession.

The impact of sustainability

Architects and engineers need to remember that this concept is far more sustainable and environmentally friendly than tearing down a structure and building a new one. Less construction waste ends up in a landfill, more natural resources are conserved, and energy consumption is reduced.

In urban areas, some of the driving forces behind adaptive reuse are environmentally conscious millennials who want to live close to the city center and within walking distance of work, shops, and nightlife. The stereotypical Cape Cod with the white picket fence is definitely not what they’re envisioning—they want fewer possessions, a smaller carbon footprint, and nearby conveniences like a laundromat or wine bar. Very often, vacant buildings in urban areas are repurposed into affordable housing to meet this demand.

Common challenges of feasibility

Sadly, some buildings are simply not good candidates for adaptive reuse. The structure might have sat vacant and decaying far too long to be resuscitated. Contamination by asbestos in the walls and ceilings may be a project-killing factor, based on your budget. Additionally, soil contamination by petroleum products, solvents, or heavy metals could make an adaptation unfeasible due to overwhelming remediation costs.

Modifications for accessibility in keeping with ADA regulations can prove expensive, too, depending on the building which was, most likely, not designed to serve people with disabilities. In some cases, minor modification will provide ADA compliance. In others, the solution might not be that simple, particularly if the building’s accessibility needs would compromise its usability or aesthetic and historic features.

In my experience, I’ve found that the older the building, the more likely you’ll need to replace the mechanical and electrical system or even install systems, like air conditioning, that are new to the building. And you may get resistance from engineers who lack the creative skills to figure out how to effectively do that without destroying the very essence of the building. As an engineer myself, I challenge all engineers to start thinking in terms of adaptive reuse rather than the absolutes of black and white. With adaptive reuse, creative and collaborative problem solving is key to a successful project.

Although the most affordable way to develop a project is to reuse an existing facility, there are some caveats. A complete assessment of the property by knowledgeable design professionals will let you know upfront what the building requires to be feasible—and to meet the needs of the intended occupants. Additionally, a payback analysis should be performed to assist in determining if the systems proposed are feasible.

As I see it, adaptive reuse is a successful concept that should be considered for every project first and foremost. It’s beneficial to the environment, it saves energy and resources, and often it can help a struggling neighborhood or community become viable once again. At the end of the day, that’s a win-win for just about everyone.

-Donna Miller is vice president of engineering with WD Partners. This article originally appeared on WD Partners is a CFE Media content partner.