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Recycle your building: 8 reasons to consider adaptive reuse and retrofitting

June 30, 2021

By Blake Jackson and Cyrus Jeejeebhoy

Reducing your building’s carbon footprint and saving money are just the beginning

This article first appeared as “8 reasons to consider adaptive reuse and retrofitting” in the Stantec Design Quarterly, Issue 10.

To reach net-zero carbon, we’re going to have to design new buildings with carbon appetites (embodied and operational) of slim to none. But before we build another building, there’s one carbon-reducing practice that’s worth trying for many clients—taking a serious look at existing buildings.

Broadly speaking, when one takes life cycle and embodied carbon into account, there’s nothing greener than a reusing building that already exists. Even for those still getting up to speed on carbon and climate change, there are good reasons to look at existing buildings. Here are eight key reasons to look at reuse.

The BEAT is a reuse of the former Boston Globe building in Dorchester, Massachusetts.

Reason 1: Embodied carbon and waste

Research from nonprofit Architecture 2030 shows that the building materials and construction sector represents 39% of total global greenhouse gas emissions. That 39% breaks down into operational emissions (heating, cooling, and lighting buildings) at 28% and embodied carbon emissions the other 11%. The reuse of existing buildings offers clients a great opportunity to curb these emissions by prolonging the useful life of materials already in place, especially those with long-life durability and high embodied energy, such as steel and concrete.

The BEAT (a reuse of the former Boston Globe building in Dorchester, Massachusetts) incorporates existing structure and envelope elements into the updated building. That allows these materials to continue to store their embodied carbon in place without the need for new virgin materials and their associated embodied emissions, while also curbing landfill waste.

Reason 2: Budget

Demolishing a building is rarely cheap, but a lot can be done with retrofitting and reuse on a budget. For some clients, choosing reuse is fiscally wise. If energy costs are skyrocketing for a building operator, they have an incentive to reduce the operational budget by investing in efficient systems upgrades, especially if energy systems are nearing the end of their life. Advances in digital technology mean we can quickly model the payback time for these upgrades against business-as-usual energy usage to make this an informed decision. Just how efficient can we make a retrofitted building?

We recently undertook a renovation project for a mothballed facility in the Greater Toronto area from the late 1980s/early 1990s with out-of-date building systems. While it was not in use, the owner shut off the facility’s lighting and set back the temperature to minimum levels. As part of the reactivation, we designed and implemented extensive energy upgrades for the facility. Due to the energy upgrades, the client noticed only a small uptick in energy consumption for its facility when it went from mothballed to reactivated.

Existing buildings are only partly to blame for current levels of greenhouse gas emissions globally. However, they hold a key to its reversal and mitigation.

Reason 3: Smart land-use planning

Reusing existing buildings eases demand on new land development. Existing buildings already have sewer, utility, and transportation connections to the broader community, lowering infrastructure costs. They also offer an opportunity to enhance their surrounding community with improved accessibility in and around their sites.

New public passageways connect communities around The Beat to newly programmed cafes, green space, bike lanes, and more desirable pedestrian pathways to the existing multimodal transportation hub. The project has even taken over stewardship of the adjacent Pattens Cove conservation land.

Reason 4: Continuing operations

If a major renovation or replacement isn’t possible, many operators prefer that their buildings continue operating while they undertake key upgrades. Some building types—hospitals, clinics, recreation centers, civic buildings, residential buildings with a social housing component—must remain operational as much as possible, even during a major renovation. Thus, it becomes important for us to plan phased renovations and retrofitting to allow for operations to continue.

In these piecemeal renovations, it’s wise for us to practice integrated asset management and schedule the replacement of related or adjacent components. For example, if it’s time to replace a building’s roof, that’s likely the best time to replace your rooftop HVAC equipment.

Bridgepoint Active Health in Toronto, Ontario, includes the reuse of a former jail that was originally constructed in 1864. It serves as the hospital’s administrative center. 

Reason 5: Utility efficiency, accessibility, and resiliency

Existing buildings are only partly to blame for current levels of greenhouse gas emissions globally. However, they hold a key to its reversal and mitigation. For North American cities to hit their 2050 emissions and carbon-reduction targets, they’ll need to rethink existing buildings alongside ultra-efficient new construction.

When we give existing buildings new uses, it triggers the need for compliance with modern codes. This offers an opportunity for us to enhance energy efficiency, water efficiency, resiliency, and equity through equipment and fixture upgrades, hardening and raising critical equipment, and upgrades to promote universal access.

Reason 6: Phased renovations

Practical, budget-conscious clients can plan renovations over multiple budget cycles to slowly transform their building. The phased approach allows spreading out capital investments over time.

For example, Seneca College’s phased renovations have focused on certain priority areas within the building for modernization and repurposing, while undertaking a phased retrofit of lighting, HVAC, and interiors over several years to stay within budget. For the most recent phase, the college replaced its conventional chillers and boilers with a geothermal exchange system, which stores waste heat from the chiller in the ground and pulls it out in the winter to offset the building’s heating load. Converting to the geo-exchange system reduced the building’s GHG emissions.

Reason 7: Memory, urban fabric continuity, and creative juxtaposition

Existing buildings play a vital role in the history of a place and the memory of its people. Their preservation retains a physical form. It also retains the community’s collective memories and experiences. When we think of preservation, we often think of “very” old buildings, and/or historically significant structures. But all buildings deserve a second (or third) chance.

The design for Bridgepoint Active Health in Toronto maximizes connections between the hospital and its community, the city, and with nature. A former jail, originally constructed in 1864, has been repurposed by Bridgepoint as the hospital’s administrative center. The renovation preserved, restored, and made publicly accessible a variety of jail cells, gallows, and a central rotunda. Interpretive plaques outline the history of the jail and site and show how the campus has transformed from a place of isolation to a place of healing.

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A look inside The BEAT.

Reason 8: Tax credits and incentives

In some locations, generous tax credits encourage developers to take on the risks of redevelopment of buildings that exhibit historic significance for modern use. Often, this is the only way such buildings achieve economic viability.

Case in point, our team provided LEED consultation on the Nursing Education Center in Providence, Rhode Island—a project where 50% of the investment was secured through available historic tax credits. The project transformed the ruins of the historically protected former Narragansett Electric Lighting Company building into a modern nursing education facility for three local institutions.

Government incentives make renovations and retrofitting for energy efficiency more palatable to clients. On a recent renovation at Toronto Pearson International Airport, our client was able to tap into government incentives for energy efficiency to stretch its renovation budget further. This is in addition to the long-term energy and cost savings we designed the project to achieve.

The renovation advantages

While most of us think of renovations as messy and slow, they have many advantages. Before you embark on your next new building project, first consider adaptive reuse and retrofitting—the benefits to you, the community, and our planet are worth a second thought.

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  • Blake Jackson

    Blake is a passionate architect who specializes in designing and implementing stewardship (sustainability, wellness, and resiliency) for a variety of projects and industries.

    Contact Blake
  • Cyrus Jeejeebhoy

    As a senior mechanical engineer, Cyrus works on energy audits, carbon neutral studies, mechanical investigations, energy and engineering feasibility studies, and measurement and verification.

    Contact Cyrus
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