Historic properties are no longer a thing of the past, thanks to design professionals working to revamp them into modern spaces. Renovating older buildings, instead of opting for new construction projects, has become common practice due to the economical, environmental, and historical value held by these structures.
“Mixed-use and adaptive re-use projects have been prevalent over the last 30 years as certain sector industries have changed, outsourcing to foreign countries increased, and unused or under-utilized structures (were) left waiting for new development and new uses,” says David Michael Lieb, Interior Design instructor at The New England Institute of Art.
Lieb, who is the owner of Liebstudios says the types of projects vary, but overall, the most common type of renovation is turning a building into a mixed-use structure. He describes this as an architectural design where the building contains neighborhood commercial and retail spaces, combined with affordable housing.
Lieb says many communities prefer to turn old buildings into commercial spaces, instead of opting for new construction, as a way to celebrate their manufacturing past.
“The fundamental appeal is preserving part of the historic or cultural fabric of an industry’s importance to a local community,” Lieb says.
Clinton Brown, president and principal at Clinton Brown Company Architecture (CBCA), says there are many benefits to renovating historic properties, turning them into new spaces.
“There are many appealing reasons to re-invest in turning an old building, especially a historic building into a commercial space, rather than build new,” Brown says.
Brown says, if you know what you’re doing, renovating an old building is a more economical way to get high-quality space, than starting over with new construction.
“Reinvesting in existing buildings is more environmentally responsible, to re-use and recycle rather than build new, to keep the building’s embodied energy from ending up in a landfill,” Brown says.
Brown says his firm begins rehabilitation projects with the mindset that the re-use of the building is both possible and worthwhile.
“We inventory what we have to work with, figure out what is needed, and then find and put into place the missing pieces,” Brown says. “We evaluate the cost of construction and the potential income of the completed project based on market rates. In the adaptive reuse of a historic building, there are funding opportunities in addition to what is available to new construction.”
Brown says there is almost always a way to make renovating an older building worthwhile.
CREATING A MODERN ARCHITECTURAL DESIGN IN AN OLD BUILDING
Lieb says there are fewer challenges associated with renovating an older building that hasn’t previously received significant updates, as it will be approached as a “gut rehab.” This includes replacing the guts of the building, including the plumbing, electrical, and, mechanical systems with new ones.
“In this scenario, while the challenges may be fewer, the costs may be higher in terms of replacing all the building systems,” Lieb says. “Another consideration is building structure. Proposed new uses may trigger current code requirements that could result in significant costs to a renovation project.”
Brown says his firm’s biggest challenge in renovating old buildings is convincing people who aren’t familiar with the process that it can be done.
“Even today, renovating an older building is countercultural for many of the folks you need to have involved,” Brown says. “The green building movement is still learning what we know to be true, that the greenest building is the one that is already built.”
Brown says it can also be a challenge to find professionals skilled in the area of rehabilitating historic properties, as many members of the building team are only trained and experienced in new construction.
“Finally, many of the zoning and building codes, and the good folks who administer them, are behind the times,” Brown says. “We need codes and regulations for the 21st century.”
Another challenge faced by professionals working to renovate older buildings is creating an architectural design that combines the history of the structure with the modern technology and conveniences people expect.
Brown says his firm enjoys the challenge of creating a modern architectural design for an old building in a way that allows it to maintain its original charm.
“We start by listening to the building,” Brown says. “We listen and look to understand its character and grain. We research how it came to be, because a historic building’s rebirth starts with the story of its birth.”
Brown says it’s a balancing act that takes skill, patience, and luck to make historic properties modern, while keeping their history alive.
Lieb says a key factor involved in this challenge is the type of renovation planned for the building.
“The primary determination is whether you are preserving the building or renovating a historic building,” Lieb says. “In the former, more care is taken to adhere to preserving the historic fabric of the structure, with the latter providing greater latitude for incorporating new technologies.”
He adds that if the goal of the renovation is to receive tax credits for Federal Historic Preservation and Historic Renovation, there may be binding regulations that have to be implemented to qualify.
RENOVATIONS ON HISTORIC PROPERTIES
Brown says his firm has been fortunate to work on many good and unique renovation projects, with an end result that retains and rehabilitates the space’s essential character.
For example, CBCA completed a historic rehabilitation project on the Niagara Arts and Cultural Center (NACC).
“We co-founded the NACC to breathe new life into the historic former Niagara Falls, New York High School that was slated for demolition for a strip mall,” Brown says. “The NACC is now home to more than 70 artists and arts groups, two theaters, two art galleries, an interactive children’s center, and a Niagara Falls High School alumni center.”
CBCA has worked on a number of other historic rehabilitation projects in the New York area.
Brown says the CBCA philosophy that a building re-use is possible and worthwhile when going into rehabilitation projects, works well for his firm.
“Older buildings are restored and turned into restaurants, stores, housing, (and) workspaces that attract everyone,” Brown says.