When is the life of a building worth extending? Throughout the first month of my studies abroad, this question has been the focus – and it relates to my team’s residential work in the U.S. We often face this dilemma with our homeowners: should we restore and renovate an old structure, or demolish it, send it to a landfill and start anew?
We consider the unique features of a home worth saving, the timing, cost and the shortcomings we might need to accept. When the questions are answered and we decide to renovate or restore, the intricate balance of priorities yields a unique and beautifully resonant home.
The decision to adapt a structure to a new use is more complex. What follows next is a glimpse into what I am learning about practical conversions that conserve resources, grow our community values and that self-support:
I have a romantic attachment to beautiful older buildings. I wish we could find a more useful second life for them than a visitors’ center. Making better choices requires answering several questions:
First, ask why. Would a proposed expansion or alteration improve the current value? Is a different proposed use really needed? Will a new use be a good fit with the building typology? We must understand whether the new use will be sustainable given predicted trends in urban expansion and technology.
Is the building a cultural touchstone? Is it loved by the surrounding community? Does it symbolize achievements or values we still hold dear? We must believe it will be loved once we finish.
Next, ask if (and how) it will stand. We must document the structural integrity, flood, fire and wind resistance, meeting current building code requirements. Are the gas and water piping and electricity systems intact?
We must test for rot and toxins, mold and infestation.
Will the building be convenient and comfortable to the people it serves? How will occupants and visitors arrive? Will it be accessible and safe to the elderly, children and those with vision, hearing or mobility impairments? A thoughtful plan for the future could improve convenience with anticipated shifts in infrastructure, transportation changes and demographics.
What embodied energy will be lost? We must anticipate the carbon release impact of building demolition and removal; Calculate the energy used to manufacture and transport the parts and build the new structure (including the waste generated); Evaluate the environmental costs of the making (energy, water, machinery, laborers and designers); Predict the maintenance, taking into account reductions in fossil fuels and peak-time electrical charges (and in California: water rationing).
Will the work generate a solid return on investment? This metric isn’t always financial: A school is not a profit center, but educating our children makes our lives richer in countless ways.
The decision to extend the life of an older building, or to convert it to a new use, requires a solid business plan.
We must anticipate who will own the building or lease it, and on what terms. What will the conversion cost? How long will this work take? What will the predicted maintenance cost? Can the work be phased? What agencies must approve the plan? How long will that require? Who will the new users be and how will we find them? Where are competitive businesses? Where are supporting businesses and what else is planned for the neighborhood?
And then the stoic testing: What if we discover fatal flaws during the work? What if the time or cost of the work exceeds the budget? What if we build it and no one comes? How will climate change affect it and how might it survive a pandemic? Additionally, technological advances and trends could deeply affect the use of the building (like remote working, urban transit, self-driving cars and digital banking).
So many questions! The essential research must include all stakeholders: the proposed patrons, community, governing agencies, designers, builders and financiers. The decision to move forward requires at least one “plan B”, and one “phase two”. Only then will we know if the life of a building is worth extending.
My team and I believe that we can salvage more of our buildings and knit them into stronger communities. This process requires rigor, empathy and imagination to save a building… and sometimes the courage to take it down.