Experts in adaptive use discuss how they evaluate existing buildings for adaptive use potential, how to avoid common pitfalls, how to balance sustainability with preservation, and other trends.

What are the best ways to evaluate a candidate for adaptive use?

Pamela Lippe: The number-one thing with real estate, as always, is location. Old buildings are typically near city centers and established mass transit. You also want to look at the structural integrity of the building: Was it initially well constructed? Has it been well maintained? And does it have a long, useful life remaining? It also matters whether the layout is flexible or so specific to the original use that it can’t be modified.

Jen Webber: The first question I ask is, “Can we get this listed on the National Register of Historic Places?” If we can, then we can draw on the Federal Historic Preservation Tax Incentives Program, which typically gives us about 20 percent of our capital stack. If we can’t, then my funding strategy gets much more challenging. Also, I focus on predominantly commercial space rather than residential, so another question I ask is, “Can we attract tenants to this particular neighborhood?” If something is out in the middle of nowhere, without a viable tenant prospect, we might pass, even if I feel that I can get it listed.

Brad Dockser: There are two broad questions to ask: Is the location still relevant to the way the surrounding community has developed, and/or are the bones of the building relevant in terms of adaptive use? Ultimately, you need to answer yes to both questions. But sometimes, a developer may decide to go forward even if the location is a little off the beaten path, because the building is great. And sometimes a developer will say [that] the location trumps everything, even if the building may not be perfect.

Greg Jacoby: The first thing we evaluate is the location and the second is structure. We always walk through a building to see if the footings and foundations and overall structure can allow it to support a new use. The layout is also important—if it has very divided spaces, it’s not conducive to an open floor plan. In older office buildings or hotels, the floor-to-floor height might be only ten feet [3 m], and by the time you put in new mechanical systems and sprinklers, the space might be too tight. We also consider parking and access to other transportation options, the potential to qualify for historic tax credits, and how easy it is to add life-safety features.

Liz Dunn: You’re going to get a somewhat biased answer from me, because Seattle doesn’t have that many existing older commercial buildings. So usually, if there’s an existing asset on the site, I figure out how to integrate it, in part because that’s what gives my projects their competitive advantage. Everybody wants to be in a cool space in a cool
old building.

What factors do you consider in deciding what to preserve and what to change?

Webber: The National Park Service has standards for historic preservation projects that use the Federal Historic Preservation Tax Incentives Program, so that guides what we keep. We meet with our historic consultant, architect, and general contractor to figure out the defining features of this building and what the State Historic Preservation Office will require us to keep; it tends to be things like primary entrances, windows, the exterior, lobbies. We push back on functional things. If you can make a case that there is a fire code or emergency exit issue, the fire marshal is always going to trump historic guidelines.

Dunn: A lot of my projects involve attaching a new building to an old building. I’m looking at how to integrate the two, how to bring in natural light. A lot of old buildings originally constructed for manufacturing purposes may have windows only on the street side. You can often carve out a courtyard or peel the roof back at the rear of the building and create a second storefront or interior storefront space.

Dockser: More often than not, buildings still have their historic exterior, but the original interiors have been lost or compromised. So the question becomes: Are there aspects of merit that are representative of a specific period or architect, and how can you upgrade within that? When modernizing building systems and technology today, you don’t have to be pulling cables or drilling into walls the way you might have in the past, because so much technology is wireless. You want to preserve things that have value either because of what they represent or because of what they can deliver. Older buildings tend to have higher ceilings, and sometimes openings above the doors that you can rely on to improve airflow. They were built to rely on natural light. We can make use of these attributes.

The SteelStacks Arts and Cultural Campus in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, was created from part of a former mill operated by the Bethlehem Steel Corporation.

The SteelStacks Arts and Cultural Campus in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, was created from part of a former mill operated by the Bethlehem Steel Corporation.

What are common pitfalls in adaptive use projects?

Jacoby: Too often, developers don’t spend enough time to field-measure the building. That hurts them in the end, because when these buildings were constructed, the documentation was less thorough than it is today, and the building may have changed over time. In a lot of projects we’ve worked on, the columns get thinner as the building goes up. If you don’t know that, it can cause problems. As you start adding plumbing systems from the top floor, the lines might start going through a beam or a column by the time you get to the lower floors. Also, developers need to build in contingencies for unknowns. We recommend at least a 10 to 15 percent contingency at the beginning of construction.

Lippe: A common pitfall is the difficulty in meeting contemporary building codes. There are ADA [Americans with Disabilities Act] requirements to address, and asbestos removal may be necessary if that was used at some point in the building. Foundational or structural problems that you uncover along the way are another issue. Any of those are big-ticket problems that have to be addressed. The only way to avoid them is to do a very thorough analysis, including surveying and engineering studies, to make sure that the building that you’re considering is in good enough shape.

Dunn: If the building needs utility upgrades—power, water, sewer, sprinkler—you have to have that in your budget. When you’re attaching a new building to an old building, the two of them can share utilities and mechanical systems, as well as stairs and elevators. But with hybrid buildings, it is extremely important to get accurate three-dimensional as-builts of the old building, because older buildings can sag or lean. Developers need to ask their architects to be diligent about not just getting a simple floor plan, but also understanding how the structure sits in three dimensions.

Webber: One pitfall is not doing enough environmental due diligence. I just heard of a project in which, after the Phase I environmental assessments, everything looked okay, and the contractor started digging. They found four gigantic underground storage tanks full of oil. That kind of discovery hurts your timeline and your budget. We don’t do anything without carrying out Phase I and Phase II environmental assessments and entering the project into the state environmental cleanup program, if it’s applicable.

What do you wish more developers knew about adaptive use?

Dunn: Too often, developers underestimate how much tenants will love an adaptive use project and how much more rent they will get. Developers can also underestimate the durability of the asset. An adapted older building does not go out of style nearly as quickly as a generic new one does. It is more work for the entire development team, because you have to be more creative, and there are more problems to solve, but the product quality ends up being so much more compelling and unique. There are huge returns on that.

Jacoby: A lot of times, developers walk away because they think a building is not the right size or scale, but you can challenge that assumption. Let’s say you have a three-story building and the client needs a lot more square footage. Maybe that building has a parking lot behind it that can hold a new lobby and conference center.

Lippe: Despite the difficulties, it’s possible to save money and time by using existing building structures. Adaptive use typically takes between a half to three-quarters of the time required to demolish a building and construct a new one from the ground up. Even beyond the fact that you don’t need to build a new foundation and pay for the materials involved in the building envelope, there are a lot of advantages to being able to shorten the design and construction schedule.

Webber: A lot of developers look at historic buildings as too much of a challenge. They knock them down and start from scratch, because it’s easier. But there’s so much intrinsic value in historic buildings, in their character, that’s impossible to replicate with new construction. People want to be in these kinds of spaces. I’m sitting in this amazing adaptive use project that looks out over Baltimore Harbor, and there’s no way to re-create this. There is a way to do adaptive use and historic preservation that’s cost-effective and that makes money while maintaining an interesting historical component of the city’s culture. People vote with their money, and they want to be in these kinds of spaces.

What challenges can arise when incorporating sustainable design strategies?

Dockser: The National Trust put out a study last year that concluded that the most sustainable building is one that is renovated. Adaptive use involves less waste of materials and less need for new building materials like drywall, plaster, and concrete, which are highly energy intensive and carbon intensive, even with the most sustainable production methodologies. The ability to reuse windows, walls, and ornamentation is critical. And it’s possible to be highly creative. I’ve seen people put an office or [a] conference room in what used to be a vault. Instead of spending enormous amounts of energy to get rid of the vault, repurpose it.

Dunn: You want to keep interior structure exposed, because that’s what makes the space architecturally compelling, but you also need to insulate against heat loss. If you have a flexible energy code, you can add insulation to the outside of a building, if that facade is not visible. Taking advantage of the operability of older windows for ventilation and cooling can eliminate the need for mechanical air conditioning. I’ve seen projects that use storm windows in commercial buildings in the winter, usually on the interior so the windows retain their original appearance on the exterior.

What other trends do you see?

Dockser: The ability to improve the energy efficiency of historic windows, instead of replacing them, is an important trend. I’ve seen projects that fit historic interior windows with very unobtrusive additional panes on the inside, soundproofing it and making for a more comfortable, consistent environment. We’re also seeing more cost-effective lighting that is smaller and lighter, which makes it easier to hang in high-volumed historic interiors.

Jacoby: In many cities, the easy buildings have already been rehabilitated. The more difficult ones may require you to think through daylighting strategies. For a building in Indianapolis, we recently converted the tower portion into apartments. The back portion of the building had been owned by a bank, and it contained vaults. We turned this into a hotel. Half the rooms look into a thin new atrium, which we lit with a skylight. Hotel guests don’t necessarily need to have a view.

Lippe: One trend is that it is getting easier to make historic buildings more energy efficient. Compared to ten or 15 years ago, it’s much easier to obtain energy-efficient windows that can be inserted into a historic facade and match the existing single-pane windows. Another trend is that, as the world becomes more and more conscious of the need to reduce carbon emissions and other kinds of pollution, we’re going to be seeing a lot more adaptive use. Recently I noticed that Habitat for Humanity is switching from building new homes to buying existing homes and rehabbing them. There are a lot of well-constructed buildings in good locations that will make sense to rehab.

Ron Nyren is a freelance architecture and urban planning writer based in the San Francisco Bay area.