Health Care and Environment and Utilities and Technology

VOICES FROM THE INDUSTRY: Choosing renovation or new construction a tough decision

September 3, 2007

Sooner or later, in the life of almost every building owner, there comes a time when a structure has outlived its usefulness in its current condition. A choice between two options must be made.

Do we renovate or do we demolish and build something totally new? The answer is by no means easy or automatic.

Confronted with these options, an owner must grapple with a host of issues. The following sample is not exhaustive but may prove helpful as a starting point in evaluating the choices.

Which is more cost-effective?

It's often easy to leap to the conclusion that erecting a new structure is always more expensive than renovating, and while generally a good assumption, that's not necessarily the case, depending on the site. Demolishing a building on an existing site, hauling away the debris and preparation of the site for new structure can sometimes be surprisingly costly.

Offsite utilities and infrastructure associated with a new site can also bring unexpected costs. And if demolition to clear an existing site involves environmental issues-such as dealing with disposal of contaminants-the price can be surprisingly high.

Has my organization changed?

There are occasions when changes in how the organization operates impacts the decision to build new or renovate. For example, in school construction, the open classroom concept so popular in the 1970s is now not so widely accepted. Many of these schools have been easily renovated, mainly due to the inherent flexibility of space in open buildings. However, an earlier generation of schools with fixed load-bearing walls for classrooms and corridors often proves to be too expensive to renovate.

What's the price of disruption?

Disruption during renovation sometimes can be so annoying that the potential savings is not worth the difference. That can be especially true in the case of health care facilities if renovation affects patient care or in schools if classroom instruction can be affected. Other building types where disruption can be a concern would be entertainment, gaming and fire houses. How much will renovation interrupt normal operations? Would building on a completely new site be more acceptable?

Has the environment changed?

Has the site of an existing building been affected negatively by changes that have occurred over time in its surroundings? What about changes in traffic patterns, accessibility, parking? Do new environmental requirements affect your decision? Have neighborhood changes made staying there more or less acceptable? Are you land locked? In addition to answering such questions based on present conditions, what changes in the area or with your needs are likely over the next decade or so?

Is the calendar a big factor?

If time to get into new or remodeled quarters is an important consideration, which approach will take longer? Surprising, renovation is not always the fastest way to solve this problem. Much depends on the extent of changes required versus building something completely new using the fast track method.

What about maintenance costs?

The cost of long-term maintenance is sometimes a factor in choosing between the two approaches. Will a remodeled building, especially if it retains the old heating/cooling systems, be relatively expensive to maintain over time? Or will recent improvements in construction technology and building materials be more economical over the long haul? Expert counsel is especially needed here to analyze these options.

Do intangible factors matter?

Does the current building's historical value to the community influence the deci sion? Is the current structure such an anchor in its neighborhood, for example, that the community would object if it were torn down? The objections might be especially vociferous if the design of a new structure were very much out of character with its surroundings. Also, if the current structure is on a historic register, how difficult would it be to fulfill all the legal requirements for demolishing it to prepare to totally new construction? Or on the other hand, what premium cost would be associated with a renovation project being designed under historical guidelines?

Green architecture?

How will your construction impact the world around you? What would you like it to be? A major component of sustainable architecture is to take advantage of existing structures whenever possible. Reuse of building structures, materials, city streets and public infrastructure while updating building systems, such as heating and cooling systems, lighting and technology, could have far less impact on our environment than building a new facility.

Summing up, it should be obvious that the choice between renovation or new construction can be very complex. For most building owners, it's a tough decision that shouldn't be taken lightly.

Green is president and chief operating officer of Cripe Architects + Engineers of Indianapolis, Carmel, and Fort Wayne. Views expressed here are the writer's.
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