Old Is The New "New"

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By Rebecca Stone

One of the biggest trends in construction today is repurposing existing buildings for new uses. Frequently, clients want to adapt old buildings with great bones instead of building new because the design elements and unique attributes within the existing structure often cannot be replicated or recreated. Although repurposed buildings are both trendy and desirable, the challenges that can arise when attempting to enhance their appeal while adding improved functionality are often unexpected.

When taking on this type of project, there’s an obvious opportunity to play up a building’s assets. Preserving the existing materials and historic look of the building will help tell its story. Calling attention to quirky elements like detailed brickwork, historically-mulled windows, hand-hewn woodwork or vintage tile – all features that can be difficult or expensive to achieve today - add drama and distinctiveness to the project. 

In addition, seek out the functional elements from the building’s previous purpose and utilize them for eye-catching and atypical design elements. For a project in Denver, for example, an abandoned warehouse was transformed into shared office space and three new restaurants. Much of the original warehouse machinery and infrastructure was preserved, allowing the interior to retain its industrial feel and indicating its former use to tenants and visitors. In one section of the building, a small space was carved out to house a speakeasy where the old boiler used to reside. 

When it comes to the nuts and bolts of the renovation, it’s critical to take a close look at today’s construction standards. The building being repurposed was most likely originally designed for a different use, so adapting it to serve its new function will require careful consideration of the codes that the structure was built under as well as how to bring it up to today’s requirements. Specific standards to consider include Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) access, current energy efficiency regulations, seismic rehabilitation and sustainability guidelines.

Another potential consideration is the existing shell of the building. Floor heights are fixed, window locations are set, and utility entries are difficult to move. Staying within the pre-established confines of the original building while retrofitting the space to accommodate its new functions can be tricky. Yet, it’s that precise challenge that often drives new thinking, creative problem solving and client pleasing solutions.

Adaptive reuse not only brings history back to life and delivers an experience not possible in the majority of new builds, it’s also the most environmentally friendly option. By reusing an existing structure, the material waste that comes from destroying and rebuilding old sites is reduced, as is the requirement for new materials. So although it can be more expensive to rehabilitate and repurpose an existing building, it’s one of the best ways to obtain an end result that creates the differentiation, authenticity, and character that will make your project stand out.

Rebecca Stone is the managing partner of OZ Architecture, a 150-person firm based in Denver. She designs a wide variety of dynamic environments that enrich their communities and across the nation. Her involvement with hundreds of projects over the span of her career has given her an inherent understanding of the best ways to create a sense of place — whether in the mountains, by the sea, or in an urban setting. She also sits on the Urban Land Institute (ULI) Resort Development Council and is a Juror for the ULI Global Awards for Excellence and ULI Urban Open Space Awards. 

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