The desire to live in an urban environment is still on the rise and with little or no free land on which to build, developers are looking at existing buildings that can be re-purposed for other uses.  The process of reconfiguring a building for another use is referred to as adaptive reuse. While this can be a valid option for saving some of our obsolete or historical structures, it does present its own variety of challenges including those related to building codes. In recent years, new and ever complicating codes have forced developers and property owners to teeter precariously between the minimal requirements for existing buildings and the level of functionality, safety and attractiveness found in new construction.

What are some code issues that can be encountered?

There are a variety of issues that may be encountered ranging from those that are environmental, structural, or infrastructure related. Here are some of the big ones that you should watch out for:

Environmental – One of the most common issues during an adaptive reuse project is environmental concerns – hazardous materials in the ground, hidden underground storage tanks, or environmentally unsafe materials in the building itself. Many of these adaptive reuse projects start with outdated industrial or warehouse building, which may have historically processed heavy metals or contaminants that may still be present. Levels of contamination previously considered safe have since been re-evaluated and your new building will have to meet these standards. Remediation, containment, or abatement of these materials may prove to be costly but if the possibility of contamination is accounted for the early planning stages there can be significant cost savings by figuring it in as a line item versus doing the remediation as a stand-alone process.

Structural – While older structures were generally made out of historically stronger, more long lasting materials, over the course of time, they may have become structurally un-sound, or in some cases, unsafe for the building’s inhabitants. Adaptive reuse projects could potentially encounter a variety of structural issues. For example, timber frames and unreinforced masonry may have been acceptable options for load bearing walls but modern building codes require steel reinforced beams, ties, and connections. Cinderblocks, bricks, mortar, and timber cannot stand up against events such as earthquakes and this can cause a great threat to human safety. While there is significant cost, it is possible to bring this structure up to modern standards by fixing the building to its foundation, tying building elements (such as roof and walls) to each other so that the building moves as a single unit, attaching walls more securely to underlying supports so that they do not buckle and collapse, and bracing or removing parapets and other unsecured decorative elements.

Infrastructure – Even if your structure is sound, your infrastructure will likely be in need of an upgrade. A building’s infrastructure life span is typically 30 years and most adaptive reuse is done on buildings whose electrical wiring, plumbing, sewer and sanitary lines, ventilation ductwork, and other essential operating systems are that age or older. In addition to upgrading existing systems, brand new systems may need to be added (like air conditioning, fire suppression, information technology, and security). Converting an industrial warehouse into high end loft apartments frequently results in an entirely renovated infrastructure to accommodate much different needs-simple functions such as heating, air conditioning, indoor air quality, and plumbing may require drastic reconfiguration. Outside of the building itself, there are infrastructure needs that must be addressed. For example, ensuring there is adequate water for sewer, sanitary, and fire suppression lines or sufficient power from utility lines that will be needed to service upgraded electrical and mechanical systems. Upgrading these may be pricey, but if the cost and time for testing, evaluating, and permit acquirement is accounted for in the pre-construction stage it will be much less of a headache during your redevelopment project.

How are these remedied?

As is inherent with adaptive reuse projects, upgrades to meet current codes and specifications will be necessary. The key to mitigating these potentially deal breaking issues is to plan ahead and anticipate issues before you start. Devising a solid pre-construction/design plan that allows for the addition costs and time considerations, you can avoid construction halting issues that may arise as you get into your project. Combining the functionality of a brand new structure, with the charm and character of a historic building, can frequently result in a creative, one of a kind project that will bring new life and a new use to its community.