Originally published in STIR®
Adaptive reuse can give an old structure a new sense of purpose and uplift the surrounding area.

As the amount of land available for new development in the United States continues to shrink, builders, developers and architects say that adaptive reuse and historical restoration projects are the wave of the future. The days when everything was about greenfield development is long gone.

At the same time, the decline of American manufacturing throughout the 20th century has left a wealth of former factories, industrial sites and historic buildings with tons of potential open to redevelopment. "With an industrial location that a city wants to rejuvenate, you can get economic incentives, be allowed to rezone or be given special permits to make something happen," says Navid Maqami, a principal at Greenberg Farrow, a national architectural, engineering and development consulting firm.

There are many societal benefits to adaptively reusing old buildings. Abandoned buildings and vacant lots drive down property values, create a sense of economic decline and hopelessness, and invite crime. Keeping and reusing old buildings not only help ensure their survival, it also contributes to the livability and economic sustainability of the surrounding community. The challenge for designers and architects is to get the best use out of such structures by adding a contemporary layer, while still preserving the details that make the building worth saving in the first place.

Economic benefits

Some cities, like Los Angeles, actively encourage adaptive reuse projects. The city has a dedicated adaptive reuse team tasked with helping projects navigate the permitting and development process – as well as determining if projects qualify for tax credits and other financial incentives. Rehabilitating older buildings usually qualifies owners for tax deduction of a percentage of construction costs – 20 percent for buildings on the National Register of Historic Places or in a designated historic district, and 10 percent for any building built prior to 1936. Renovations of industrial buildings for a new industrial use qualify for a 30 percent credit.

Preserving a historic structure works hand in hand with most cities' sustainability goals of minimizing sprawl, conserving energy and reducing landfill pressures. Plus, while adaptive reuse of old buildings requires fewer construction materials, it often requires more time in labor. This means that, dollar for dollar, a renovation project will provide more funds to the local workforce than a new construction project.

A different kind of creativity

Redesigning and re-imagining the purpose of a historical building can unlock hidden design potential that the original builders never envisioned. Factories, and especially mill buildings, are examples of highly adaptable buildings. Their short spans, masonry construction, exposed wall and floor surfaces, ornate detailing, and large windows result in naturally lit interiors with unique features. Because their vernacular craftsmanship is often of a higher quality than most current construction, historic buildings present architects, builders and designers with the rare opportunity to use historic materials – such as old-growth timber, hand-fired brick and hand-forged metalwork – as well as unique tools and techniques to replicate or restore elements from by-gone eras.

In addition, designers restoring an old building get to flex their research skills to find finishes and paint colors that were in vogue at the time the building was constructed. The Sherwin-Williams Preservation Pallette can take some of the work out of recreating many popular paints of past eras, such as the Victorian and Arts & Crafts movements. Designers can combine these historically accurate paint color palettes for wall, trim and accent colors to achieve a coordinated or period look for interior or exterior surfaces.

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