VOICES FROM THE INDUSTRY: Upon further review ... new reasons for old buildings

September 3, 2007

Buildings, just like people, have lives. They're born, they do their jobs, they take on new roles and, after about 75 years, most of them reach the end. Sadly, some beautiful ones die too soon, while a few ugly ones live too long. How should we decide when to save a building or when to tear it down? And have the reasons changed?

The terms of renovation are well-known (adaptive re-use, mixed-use development and historic preservation). When our actions meet their meaning, the results can be remarkable: Gregory & Appel Insurance is now housed in a former car factory; the Hard Rock Cafe and several companies continue to keep the historic Morrison Opera Place busy; and the IU Emerging Technologies Center is thriving in a renovated showroom/warehouse.

Sometimes, though, well-meaning ideas crash into reality. Any developer would tell you there's nothing more worthless than an old grocery store, even if it's on a great site. And structures with very specific functions can be unusable, even for similar functions. Many existing hospitals, for example, cannot effectively accommodate the private rooms and patient-friendly environments that today's health care consumers-and regulations-demand. The potential savings associated with re-use can easily be offset by inefficient staffing patterns and dissatisfied patients. So the cost analysis of renovating versus building new has to include not only capital costs, but also the life-cycle costs.

Until now, economics has been the primary factor behind decisions to raze or rebuild. Is it cost-effective? Is there a tax advantage? Which option provides the quickest payback? Now, other considerations are playing an equally important role in the decision to re-use or demolish.

The low-carbon view

Sustainability is on everyone's mind today, and buildings are on the leading edge of the broad challenge to do more with less.

Construction consumes about 40 percent of the raw materials entering the global economy every year, and about 80 percent of the total embodied energy in materials is used in their production and transportation. Even before they reach construction sites, building materials have consumed large quantities of fossil fuels.

If these hidden construction costs could be documented on the balance sheet, recycled architecture would become a more rational strategy for managing material resources. Preservation, restoration and rehabilitation of worthy structures will help us preserve our natural resources.

Recycling history

When a building of historic merit is preserved or restored for adaptive re-use, its "cultural energy" is also "recycled." History is brought back to life, and we recycle human spirit as well as material energy.

In a society where people can't seem to remember anything, a blend of old and new will enrich the neighborhood or the city. The former Indiana State Museum is a prime example of a building teeming with cultural energy that deserves to be brought back to life.

The economics of experience

Organizations and customers expect their environments to reach beyond function and engage them in an inherently emotional way. Buildings have become stages, and older buildings offer an authentic background for the "play."

The value approach

Yale University recently acquired 137 acres of property and 1.5 million square feet of existing buildings for about $180 million. About a third of the buildings were research buildings. It doesn't take a scientist to calculate the savings in both time and money, when new research buildings of this size would have cost IU or Purdue about $240 million and would have taken at least five years to plan and build.

Yale estimated that its cost would have been more than $300 million. Admittedly, deals like this are few and far between. But then we see a new "big box" being built right behind a vacant "big box" on Lafayette Road and ask "why?"

Eyes wide open...

Some buildings cannot be restored and some should not be preserved. Some buildings simply cannot accommodate today's technology and work patterns, and some are simply in the wrong place. More often than not, the answer will be new buildings, but the growing emphasis on sustainability tells us that we must start doing more with less.

Determining the best use for a structure as well as the cost of rehabilitation involves answering a range of technical and symbolic questions:

Has the building been maintained and kept dry?

Can it be made to conform to current fire, building and zoning codes?

What's the structural capacity and the floor-to-floor heights?

What obstacles challenge your ability to reweave this fabric of the history of the community?

With the increase in construction costs and the consequences to our environment, we will not be able to rebuild our communities every generation. So, if the location is right and the building works, the fabric of our city will be strengthened by a blend of old and new.

Altemeyer is founding principal of BSA LifeStructures, the city's largest architectural firm. Views expressed here are the writer's.
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