While new buildings are continually cropping up for our clients to move into, we at VCA are also a team of designers who love to embrace an adaptive reuse project. The term “adaptive reuse” is the procedure of taking a building that was previously built for one purpose and redesigning and renovating it for a new purpose. Whether it be due to a neighborhood’s shift to a live-work-play environment, or a use like manufacturing, that is being pushed out of a growing urban core, repurposing a building is often a choice that hits a developer’s multiple bottom lines. Leaving some of a building intact – structure, façade, and core, for example – is a way to reduce the carbon footprint of a project, because the materials that have already gone into the building remain instead of constructing of all new steel, wood, glass, and concrete. The creative use of an existing building can also appeal to many types of tenants, who look for the character of existing architecture to work in harmony with a well-designed interior fit out.
As our industry’s emphasis on carbon neutrality continues to sharpen, designers are turning a critical eye toward preserving existing buildings. Carl Elefante, former president of the American Institute of Architects, said, “The greenest building is the one that already exists.” These buildings from the outside often define the character and culture of a city. Whether it was an old mill, factory, parking garage, or otherwise, sometimes these buildings bless their new users with higher than typical ceiling heights, exposed structure that provides instant warmth and appeal, or quirky and unique details that can’t be duplicated in a new building. The benefits are not only aesthetic, though – they are also sustainably minded. LEED, for example, awards points for adaptive reuse, when at least 50% of the existing building structure and envelope (excluding window assemblies) are maintained.
Challenges exist, of course, in adaptive reuse that are not typically encountered in newer buildings. Often window assemblies must be replaced to meet local codes, and mechanical, electrical, plumbing, and fire protection systems require overhauls to meet the needs and comfort of today’s office inhabitants. Sometimes designers encounter deep spaces that have little natural light and are challenged to design a way to make these spaces inviting and bright. Documenting the existing conditions of older buildings can be a challenge in itself – often even if drawings do exist, they may not capture the full history of the construction that a building has gone through in its lifetime. Luckily, many technologies and tools exist to help facilitate the documentation process, including building scanning that creates three-dimensional models of the existing space.
An adaptive reuse project can often be enormously rewarding for developer and building owner, architect, and end user. Whether it be the draw of the industrial aesthetic or the mission to preserve our resources, there are many benefits to pursuing such a project. With the right team of consultants and contractors, many older buildings can have a new life as office space and provide exceptional experiences for users for many additional years to come.