Renovation Finding New Buildings in the Dust of the Old

home renovation remodelling


Home renovation is one thing but renovation with remodelling is a different concept.  The growing emphasis on sustainability in construction has brought a change in how we consider current buildings. The time may be coming when we stop planning for building replacement, and instead plan for building reuse. That in turn would significantly change the roles of designers and builders.

Structures will obviously age and outgrow their original functions. With changes in technology and lifestyle, construction and design are constantly updated to meet modern demands. Older structures are left in the wake of change. Those sensitive to history may prefer to carry out renovation to restore older structures to their former glory; however, costs often make this plan unrealistic. An alternate concept is “adaptive reuse” – a process of retrofitting old buildings for new uses, which allows structures to retain their historic integrity while providing for occupants’ modern needs.

In the pursuit of sustainable development, a lot can be gained from adapting and reusing buildings by renovation remodelling. Bypassing the wasteful process of demolition and reconstruction alone makes adaptive reuse attractive. Environmental benefits, combined with energy savings and the social advantage of repurposing a place with valued heritage, make adaptive reuse an essential component of sustainable development. Historic buildings provide a glimpse of our past while lending character and serving a new practical purpose in our modern communities. An old factory may become an apartment complex, a rundown church may find new life as a condominium, or an old office building may be transformed into a vibrant retail facility. In many ways, an adaptive-reuse renovation project can invigorate a community by meeting the changing needs of the population.

A Case for Reuse by Renovation

In today’s economy, retrofitting an older building doesn’t always make sense when compared to building new? Although, there are times when it might. There are many considerations. It’s necessary to weigh the cultural distinction, aesthetics, and expenses for any project.

Adaptive reuse is different from restoration or preservation. While a restoration or preservation project involves restoring a building to its original state, adaptive reuse and renovation actually changes the intent of a structure to meet the modern user’s needs.

Still, some adaptive-reuse projects do include restoration of the building’s façade, or parts of the interior to look as it did in times past. Older buildings often showcase aesthetics that modern buildings simply cannot afford. Built when skilled labour was cheap, these structures often boast a higher attention to detail than those built today. Architectural elements include sculpted stone, columns and capitals, elaborate masonry, vaulted ceilings, and carved wood – all of which can be prohibitively expensive today. Adaptive reuse of such buildings allows a building to retain much of its character and aesthetics by incorporating these elements into the new framework.

Many structures become candidates for adaptive reuse and renovation simply because of their location.  Waterfronts that once harnessed the current of rivers and lakes to speed production are now serving as major selling points for homebuyers and renters.

The Financial Case

Arguably the most important factor in the decision to adapt an existing building is cost. Whether the owner is private or public, budgets always come into play. Unless the actual goal is historic restoration of a treasured landmark (when restoration may cost more than a new building), then adaptive reuse must be the more cost-effective option, or rebuilding will win favour.

Fortunately, there can be many cost advantages to reusing an older structure, such as lower establishment costs. Further, there is little or no demolition required, land acquisition is often less expensive, and many – if not all – of the required utilities and services are already connected and may only need modernization. Also, there are additional savings that result because the structure is already in place (i.e. materials and their corresponding erection costs have already been accounted for in the structure).

Tax Credits

Another financial benefit of adaptive-reuse projects is tax credits (if the project is historic in nature). The Federal Historic Rehabilitation Tax Credit Program provides a 20-percent tax credit on applicable structures. Other local tax credits can apply from location to location. To be eligible for such a credit, a number of provisions must be met. First, the property must be certified historic by the National Park Service (NPS). In addition, it must be used for an income-producing purpose and finished in a timely manner, and the appropriate fees must be paid to the NPS. Most importantly, however, owners must follow strict guidelines for the rehabilitation, set forth by the Secretary of the Interior.

Regardless of the historic nature of the project, another key consideration early in the process is zoning requirements. Local zoning codes must be researched to ensure that the intended use of the structure is permissible. If a zoning change request must be made, it’s much easier to address early in the project. Environmental considerations are also crucial to review during this stage.

Guidelines for Rehabilitation

Once the determination to perform an adaptive reuse has been made, the next step in the process is determining how. Specific to historic structures, the Secretary of the Interior has published Standards for Rehabilitation. These 10 standards pertain to historic buildings of all types and apply to the interior, exterior, and surrounding environment. The standards must be followed to apply for federal tax credits.

Retaining the defining characteristics of a property is key to success, preserving as much of the original fabric as possible.  Avoid creating a conjectured or false history through additions to the building, although you should preserve any additions made throughout the building’s life.

Avoid replacing elements where possible, a repair would be more appropriate.  Any replacements must be identical in appearance and material where a repair is not possible.  Further, the rehabilitation process must not harm buildings or their surroundings.

This includes the use of harsh surface treatments, damaging archaeological resources, or using irreversible connection methods for new additions. It is necessary to differentiate new additions from the old, while still keeping with the original structure’s architectural features and scale.

The Ideal Candidates

Although examples of successful adaptive-reuse and renovation projects include industrial facilities, factories, strip malls, schools, churches, offices, hotels, condominiums, grocery stores, big-box retailers, theatres, and other facilities, not all structures are ideal for reuse. What determines if a project is a fit? While there is no checklist of what makes an ideal candidate, the majority will agree that the most important factor is clearly starting with the overall project goal. Is the goal simply to reuse the space because it appears to be a cheaper solution, or is the hope to capture the building’s character and transform it for a new purpose? There is no right answer, but the answer does guide the decision-making process. It’s crucial to understand the net result after the modifications and be sure it matches the project goals.

Following identification of the goals for the space, the team performs cost-benefit analysis.  In addition to the obvious budget comparisons between demolition/new construction and restoration, evaluate other intrinsic costs or benefits, such as marketability. For example, there is marketing value to an office in a structure where some historic or famous event occurred.

Budget Constraints

In addition to the budget comparisons, the success of any adaptive-reuse and renovation project directly correlates to the quality and expertise of the team performing it. From the onset, the project should involve the owner, a design professional, a restoration contractor, and, in the case of historic projects, a historic conservator and the local preservation office.

Analysis of a buildings repair history is to take place before looking at the building itself.  Maintenance logs, old reports and even word of mouth will highlight the history.  This will give an indication of how the building has performed and what areas need attention.

A design professional carries out a complete condition assessment, following this initial step, with the aid of a qualified team.  The specialist accurately determines possible adaptations.  This will serve as a guide for the adaptive-reuse and renovation project and can help prevent unforeseen and often costly problems down the road.  The designers now develop the plan in order to manipulate the existing footprint.  Trades people can now carry out the work with a high level of expertise and attention to detail. With adaptive reuse and renovation, errors and poor workmanship can permanently etch the face of a building.

The Building Envelope

The project team may replace the building envelope (the roof, windows, doors, etc.) in adaptive-reuse and renovation projects. It is a common mistake to omit these items from the project scope unless they are leaking or falling off.  Of course, these items will still leak or be unsafe and will require millions of pounds to put right later on.

A design professional assesses possible modifications to the building envelope.  This will determine the condition and suitability for re-use and renovation. Key factors to review include the useable life and anticipated replacement value of each component.  Maintenance history of the systems and components, previous major capital projects, aesthetic design desires and the impact on the existing structure.  Also, how long the owner intends to retain the property.


A building envelope specialist will conduct and document a physical inspection and water penetration tests. The specialist may also assist with material selection and develop the project scope. On projects involving windows, the specialist will involve the product manufacturer and testing companies, and, as necessary, would encourage the team to engage a building envelope design professional. Preserving and/or restoring original wood or steel windows requires the development of a repair method.  The specialist can make performance enhancements following structural analysis.   It must also minimise the impact on the finished aesthetic by items such as weather-stripping replacement or interior storm windows.


Structural and Mechanical Considerations

The structural integrity of the building will determine Re-use success. Any adaptive reuse or change in use of a building requires a proactive look at the structure. Will the structure experience new loads? Are structural modifications necessary? Will there be new openings and penetrations? What is the impact of mechanical systems, and will they force any structural modifications?

The current building code, at the time of construction, will determine the design. Codes only certify the minimum requirements for safety.


Consequently, a structural engineer will determine the suitability of older materials with strength analysis tests.  Subsequently replaced with new materials and designs better suited to new usage requirements. New floor openings, increased load requirements, and complete changes to the overall building structure are very common including upgrading for ecological reasons. These changes often require innovative structural strengthening solutions, which frequently evolve even as the project is taking place.


Buildings eligible for re-use have certain aesthetic, logistic, and economic constraints.  There are many different strengthening techniques. Fibre reinforced polymers (FRPs) can increase the capacity of a concrete by up to 60 percent or more. It’s also possible to embed the fibre reinforcement into the existing structure. This way there is no noticeable change to the dimensions of the structure. Section enlargement and external post-tensioning are also very effective strengthening techniques. Especially when space limitations aren’t as tight and the additional capacity requirements are high. The strengthening solution must satisfy all parameters using these techniques.

In addition to the building’s skeleton, it’s crucial to review the mechanical requirements. An energy audit of the existing building will determine strategies for energy use and indoor air quality. The insertion of new insulation may also require new venting for moisture control, and new mechanical systems may require additional area on the roof or adjacent to the building for air conditioning for example. The floor-to-floor dimensions will limit the choices for vertical and horizontal duct for new systems. The site might not have enough room for new mechanical systems such as geothermal wells or ground water heat pumps. The roof might need additional support to carry new mechanical systems.

The integration of structure and mechanical systems requires teamwork from the onset of the project.  The architect and mechanical and electrical engineers, along with a thoughtful study of existing conditions should all work together.

Moving Forward 

Many owners are now recognising the value of the adaptive-reuse and renovation process.  The lower cost of labour and materials.  Also, the intrinsic value associated with the culture and memories that help revitalise our communities. Today’s adaptive reuse also goes beyond retrofitting a structure to make it look as it once did. In many cases, buildings receive a brand new skin that allows the owner to capitalise on the existing structure.  The community benefits from the structure’s facelift. Whether transforming the old into new or refurbishing the old to its original glory, adaptive reuse and renovation has a growing place in our communities.


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