Adaptive reuse of buildings is a form of sustainable urban regeneration. The term may be trendy, but the process of rehabilitating a building or a space for another use is not new. You can see transformative philosophies across industries and this mindset is driving the escalation of adaptive reuse architectural projects. Once a niche market, adaptive reuse has become a lexicon for architects and developers. From brownfield reclamation, to urban pathways initiatives, to repurposing a 19th century town center into a 21st century mixed-use development, is all adaptive reuse.

Building availability has become impacted with population growth, increased demand for space and a short supply of land. Rising land costs have changed the landscape of suburban sprawls. After the housing boom, land prices were driven up. What were once profitable projects are now difficult to keep in the black. While the per square foot construction costs tend to be higher than ground up construction, adaptive reuse removes land costs from the equation, making overall capital investment still viable. As a result, there is increased activity by developers and architects to undertake rehabilitative, restorative and adaptive reuse projects.

Beyond the demand for space, adaptive reuse was a response to the recession. With new development dormant and a long recovery period, developers are finding work in the form of adaptive reuse. Adaptive reuse can reinforce older urban forms and dated buildings can be reimagined to serve new uses. The juxtaposition of old and new gives cities interesting architectural features – intriguing corners, texture and facades. The Funk Zone in Santa Barbara was an example of an adaptive reuse project, which gave people a new link to the waterfront. As part of AB design studio’s work, we reconfigured part of what was already present and added to it, discovering along the way part of the building’s history – Existing brick & wood truss systems, for example. Features such as these, intrinsic to historic buildings, give a project a sense of authenticity that we cannot re-create.

The advantages of adaptive reuse vary from project to project. A benefit of adaptive reuse includes the preservation of properties with historic value to the community, as well as transforming a blighted underperforming site into something usable that provides increased tax revenue for the city. In some situations, it is financially beneficial to repurpose an existing building rather than ground up construction. This practice can potentially shorten construction timelines, should the buildings have structurally sound foundations and frameworks. Adaptive reuse is an architectural compromise between restoration and demolition. Consumers flock to these revitalized districts where transformed buildings have become integral community spaces.

There are federal and local incentives for preserving and re-using historic structures. Adaptive reuse projects involving historically registered buildings are eligible for federal tax incentive programs known as historic rehabilitation tax credits. State incentives include state credit subsidy pools that range from 5-25% of eligible costs. Finally, there are sustainability implications for adaptive reuse and building rehabilitation as cities aim for low carbon development footprints. Adaptive reuse extends the life of a building and reduces demolition waste. These projects are also inherently green as they involve the reuse of empty, often blighted buildings, and most are being redeveloped to higher energy sustainability specifications in accordance with city ordinances.

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 and 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 a historical, or landmarked property, many are finding that the investment pays off both economically and culturally.

Existing building structure – by preserving the majority of the 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. In order 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 in order to meet building code.

The biggest factor to consider when choosing a building for an adaptive reuse project is determining the end goal of the project. It is important to choose a building that is well-suited for the project’s needs or craft a program based on building availability. Particular structures are suited to particular projects. Buildings with a rich history and unique architecture have increased in popularity. In the San Francisco Bay Area, for example, a number of historic office buildings and warehouses have found new life as apartments. From apartments to offices to hotels, providing an authentic experience in an historic setting is a great selling point. Many companies are moving their operations from the suburbs back to urban cores because of the amenity base that downtowns provide. For example, Google recently purchased one of the largest office buildings in Manhattan and a historic warehouse in downtown Pittsburgh, and recently transformed a former mall in Mountain View into the GoogleX campus.

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.




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