Adaptive Reuse

Adaptive reuse is a hot topic in historic building preservation. I spoke with three experts to find out what makes adaptive reuse so appropriate for the times. Read on to find out about this method of historic building preservation, and to learn about a very special adaptive reuse project in Moscow, Idaho.

What is adaptive reuse?

"Adaptive reuse is something that we call it today, but people have been reusing their resources since people have been building buildings," said Dr. B.D. Wortham-Galvin, a professor in the University of Maryland's School of Architecture, Planning & Preservation. "We've just given it a name," she said. Technically, all historic home preservation projects fall into one of four categories provided by the federal government. Dr. Donald Linebaugh, Director of the Graduate Program in Historic Preservation at the University of Maryland said, "They're broken into four areas: preservation, which is the approach of doing very little intervention, and just keeping everything that's there in the building, whether it's new or old or otherwise. Moving from there is restoration, which is taking the building back to a particular point in time. Rehabilitation is really the set of guidelines that we're using when we do adaptive use, which are less stringent, and then finally reconstruction."

"Adaptive reuse is really just keeping our resources in use as our needs change in terms of social needs. It's also technological needs," said Dr. Wortham-Galvin. "If you look in downtown DC, the Tivoli Theater was adaptively reused as well as added to, so now it's a multiuse complex as a grocery store, condominiums and office space. What was a really critical piece of infrastructure within the neighborhood, the Tivoli Theater, which fell out of use, now has given new life and it's in the Columbia Heights area of DC; one of the things that spurred the economic redevelopment of that area was the adaptive reuse project," she said.

"Particularly in Washington DC, one of the things that you see are a lot of the old public school buildings, buildings that were built in the mid-19th century to the turn of the century," said Wortham-Galvin. "These wonderful old brick school buildings in Washington DC lost their reason for being. School systems expanded or we needed modern large gymnasiums, etc. So there's all these public school buildings, most of which have been turned into condominiums. There's been tremendous success all over DC, and particularly because DC was one of the first places where public schools really proliferated, so we have lots of them, and they were designed very, very well. They've been used now in reuse as condominiums," she continued.


Adaptive Reuse in Moscow, Idaho

Miranda Anderson is an Assistant Professor and coordinator of the Design Resource Center (DRC) in the Department of Architecture and Interior Design at the University of Idaho. She spoke with me about a very ambitious adaptive reuse project that she's working on in a former agriculture-industrial area in Moscow, Idaho that's become an urban renewal district. The project is called the 6th and Jackson Street Grain Silos. It's a grain elevator and silo complex that she and a team are converting into residential and commercial space.

"The idea is that this area had been a former barrier, this ag-industrial area, but most of those companies have moved to the outskirts of town for various reasons. There were several abandoned warehouses, grain elevators and silo structures. This one was planned to be demolished by the previous owners. We just felt it was really important to reconsider that and to maintain that part. We live on the Palouse, and it's all about agriculture and the landscape is a constant reminder with rolling wheat fields. The idea was to try to maintain some of the historical and cultural heritage of the area," Anderson said.

The 6th and Jackson streets project embodies a few aspects of adaptive reuse that anyone considering a building rehabilitation project should be aware of. Anderson said, "First and foremost, and it's something that will come up a lot in any adaptive reuse project, is making sure the proper environmental and structural analysis is done. In this case it is a brownfield. A brownfield is a site that has had some type of industry or other use prior to present that may have caused some kind of contamination or environmental damage, and it needs to be restored and remediated before certain types of uses. We're in the tail end of cleanup. The Idaho Department of Environmental Quality has a volunteer remediation program where it awards $150,000 reimbursement, and we have a certain match, as long as we meet the requirements for the cleanup."

Environmental Incentives for Adaptive Reuse Projects

"One of the reasons why I think people are afraid of real dramatic adaptive reuse projects is because of unknown environmental [problems]," said Anderson. Although historic buildings may have some environmental problems to clean up, restoration offers some clear environmental benefits. Dr. Linebaugh said, "I think that adaptively reusing buildings is an absolute necessity. It's a necessity from a green perspective. We've built all of these buildings and it makes no sense to be tearing them down and building new buildings. From a materials standpoint and an energy standpoint, the material use for new purposes I think is super important."

Dr. Wortham-Galvin said, "We need to start to think about historic properties as one of our greatest resources in terms of sustainability. Those resources already exist. Those resources have been extracted from the ground. The energy, everything that was expended on them, already exists." Wortham-Galvin continued, "I have a colleague named Carl Elefante. One of his favorite phrases is, 'The greenest building is the building that already exists.' I would rather stop worrying about history with a capital H and start looking at all of the buildings and home around us and see that these are resources that already exist and with minor modification are not only green for the environment but help us have a continuity to the past. So we can start to think of this as a way of stewarding change instead of thinking of it as freezing buildings in time."

What Dr. Linebaugh and Dr. Wortham-Galvin are discussing is something called "embodied energy." Miranda Anderson said, "I don't know if all homeowners have considered that term, but when we talk about energy use today, there's a lot of talk about energy efficiency and Energy Star appliances, windows, doors, insulating well. The operating energy is only one part of the energy picture." Anderson continued, "There's another thing called embodied energy, which is all the energy which was used to construct it. There are certain things that are higher in embodied energy, and there are certain things that are lower. It's important to consider all the energy that's embodied in the structure itself. Can we really talk about building a green building if we tore down a previous building? Embodied energy includes all the [energy that went into] transportation and manufacturing. The greenest building is the one that is already built. That's part of the idea behind that is maintaining and reusing all those resources, all that energy, instead of tearing it down and starting over again."

Adaptive Reuse Supports Community Development

"In most cases, it's already existing and it's a piece of history and it's in either a neighborhood or a district or an environment that has been around for a certain period of time, so there's going to be dramatic changes or modifications or impacts from that project that should involve a lot of community input," said Anderson. "In our case, we really believe that this structure belongs to the community. The most successful projects look at once upon a time, this was part of a network industrial landscape that was part of an economy that supported this region. Is there a way through adaptive reuse that we can still support that economy today?" she said.

Dr. Linebaugh said, "When we get asked to come in and work on a preservation project, the group that we're working with sees it as yet another house museum. One of our jobs is to first begin to assess and say, 'Hey, is this really a viable use? Do we need another museum? Is it something that has large public benefit by doing that? Or, can we retain the historic character by restoring the outside of the building and make the building live and be economically and socially sustainable for the longer term by turning it into something else?'" Linebaugh continued, "Certainly a lot of the emphasis, and I think rightfully so, has been on that latter, because there are just so many historic buildings that have been restored, and all the money and energy that has been put into that with little thought about how do we keep it going. I see the rehabilitation and adaptive use perspective as an important one, again, when thoughtfully applied."

Does it cost more?

The cost of an adaptive reuse project "depends on the project and how aggressive the developer wants to be, but also the quality of the material that's left behind," said Wortham-Galvin. "Is it something that we can just clean up, or is it in some ways damaged beyond repair? For instance, in these brick school buildings that have been turned into condominiums, what's great is that people end up with these brick interior walls. They have these very oversized large windows. They have much higher ceilings than contemporary standards for home construction.

The dimensions and proportions of the space are usually kept the same. If there are wonderful old materials, whether it's stone or brick, they are usually kept. Also flooring: original wood floors." She continued, "For the most part, it's usually updating the systems that we don't see -- utilities, electricity, cable wiring, and then obviously for walls that are not exposed brick, plaster, drywall will be put in. For the most part they try to keep as much as they can and just modernize the guts that you don't see."

Anderson said, "I think the impression in general is that most people think that they're going to cost more. What may or may not be factored into that, though, is you have to consider all the infrastructure that is already there. Those savings aren't always calculated in. For example, on this grain elevator project, it would cost $300,000 just to demolish it. We said, 'If you take that off the asking price, we have a deal because we want to keep the building.' They were expecting any buyer wouldn't want the building. They thought the property would have more value flat."

"One of the reasons why it's important to have really active historic district commissions in your community because they're the ones who identify resources and write up which sort of buildings are significant, and which ones need protecting," Wortham-Galvin said. She continued, "Particularly when we talk about industrial buildings that are being reused, a lot of the loft thing that is happening more in Baltimore than DC, a lot of those aren't necessarily designated. In that case, if they are trying to get a tax credit, then you have to protect a certain amount of the resources in order to get the tax credit. It's the carrot version of it. Technically you can do what you want to the building, but if you want to get a tax break on it then you have to save a certain amount and be protective of a certain amount of the resource. If it's part of a historic district, then there will be certain protections already placed on it that minimize usually what you can do to the exteriors but not to the interiors. Again, if you want to get the tax credit, then you have to be much more gentle with you intervention."

Advice on Adaptive Reuse Projects

Each expert offered a bit of advice to people considering adaptive reuse projects:

Miranda Anderson: "The ability to adapt in an adaptive reuse project: In some cases, it might be a good project depending on the scope and the size. It might be a good candidate for design/build. That's an approach to a project where the designer and the contractor work together or maybe are the same entity and work together from the very beginning. Sometimes it has different contractual relationships. I think on these projects it is really useful to have a contractor on board early so that they're clear that this is adaptive reuse, this is a different approach, so that they can be more open to move through different phases."

"The other thing is that I've found from working on other adaptive reuse historic preservation projects is that there are just a lot of people who enjoy creative spaces. So if you have the right market for that, if you have people interest in that, you have something unique that it would be difficult to replicate in any other way. Not everybody is open to that or can visualize that."

Dr. Linebaugh: "Get some help and advice from your local historic commission or county historic preservation office. Next, and probably more importantly, is the state historic preservation office. Every state in the US has a historic preservation office. They have really great resources for homeowners. The other thing is for homeowners to be wary of these companies that say we'll come in and do this new paint job that will last forever, or these new windows that will last forever, and to really critically think about what it means to rip out all the historic windows and how long are replacement windows really going to last. You need to approach these projects thoughtfully and in an informed way. Finally, to the extent possible, is to document, document, document. Take pictures of what it looked like before you do the work, take pictures while you're doing the work, and take pictures after the work so that as much evidence as possible can be retained."

Dr. Wortham-Galvin: "Don't be afraid to change, but respect what is already there before you do. Some people fear that trying to renovate or upkeep an older house will just take too much effort. And so they rather start all over again with brand new stuff. But often that which is already there has an installation value, for instance, like a brick home. Or the wood flooring you may only need to replace an individual board rather than redoing the whole floor. So if you keep up with the maintenance at the minor moments, older buildings can actually outperform and outlast newer ones. But sometimes I think we're scared of that because those technologies are unfamiliar to us because they're from the past. Really, if you just repair it slowly, little project by little, it's not so daunting, it's not that expensive, and usually that older building will outperform newer construction, particularly construction since the 1980s."

Photos: Elevators from 6th & Jackson Streets (view from northeast) by John Anderson; silo sunset (view from southwest) by Miranda Anderson.

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