Renovate or Tear Down and Build New? The Joy and Pain of Old Buildings

By: Derek Maschek


You have an older building - say 50 years old - and after years of maintenance and minor renovations, you’ve finally decided that something more needs to be done. The building is undeniably dated both aesthetically and functionally, and there are some potentially larger concerns that need attention. Perhaps you are finding moisture where it doesn’t belong, discovering odd metal corrosion inside, witnessing discoloration or staining of interior finishes, or perhaps interior materials are delaminating, warping, cracking, sagging, or expanding. Ever the optimist, you hold onto the hope that you can possibly move forward with renovations that will get you something almost like new while fixing the problems, for less investment than tearing down and rebuilding.


There’s good news and bad news.


The Bad News: It’ll take some patience and investment to determine if you are right, but there are no guarantees. You will need to perform an in-depth investigation into the condition of the building before you know exactly what needs to be done. Only then can you make an informed decision on a renovation approach. The alternative of charging forward with renovations without investigation can lead to the discovery of costly issues during construction that were not accounted for in your thinking.


The Good News: It is almost always less expensive to renovate than to build new and having the right partner and taking the proper steps is critical. Learning about necessary repairs and remediation prior to starting renovation designs may seem to court disappointment until you realize those costs are unavoidable. The sooner you know about them the better, as you are then able to make informed decisions that align with your budget and vision for your facility.


As a general rule, it is true that renovations are more cost effective than all new construction. However, there are challenges and limitations you must accept. The costs associated with investigating and designing an existing building are higher and will require more time. Existing conditions will impose limits on your aesthetic and functional choices. Also, the challenge of having an active construction site in the middle of your operations is unavoidable and never pleasant. Not surprisingly, the most significant impediment to a cost-effective renovation comes in the form of unanticipated hidden conditions - unknown or underestimated problems that negatively impact your budget and schedule, and at the worst possible time during construction.


Buildings built 40 to 50 years ago share a common set of problems, and corresponding reasons for them. Products and systems have had time to fail due to degradation, wear and tear, and settlement. Mediocre products, poor detailing, and construction errors have had time to reveal themselves. What may have previously been allowable is no longer compliant or acceptable due to changes in building codes and ordinances, best practices, advanced technology, and the need for accessible accommodations.


When many older buildings were constructed, there was not the scientific understanding we have now as to how air, water, temperature, and vapor affect buildings during different seasons and in different climates. Product and system testing was performed by real world experimentation, often inappropriately applying old detailing and construction techniques with results that would not manifest for years, long after the architect and contractor could be held liable. When these methods and systems failed, it has been in a manner that allows liquid water or vapor to enter your building and linger.

It is moisture within the air that is the villain in the story. We understand now that vapor is perpetually pushing its way through building walls into drier areas, just as heat is perpetually losing energy battling cold. Holes from fasteners, gaps between materials, porous materials, poor quality construction, and degrading materials all allow vapor into a wall to some degree. When this moist air finds the point of condensation within the volume of insulation, liquid water results. Since liquid water needs air flow to escape and insulation only works by avoiding air flow, that liquid water lingers and destroys your building. When insulation gets wet, it stops working and may even rot and wooden sheathing and studs will, fostering mold as well. Metal will rust, be it a stud or structural steel.


While it doesn’t involve damage of any material sort, buildings of a certain age are not compliant with modern standards in most regards, often necessitating expensive alterations without really gaining you anything tangible. In addition to the general evolution of products, systems, detailing, and construction techniques mentioned above, the last 50 years has seen extreme changes in building codes. While many aspects of these code developments are related to life safety concerns and energy consumption, there is an ever-growing impact on construction systems and materials that affect building durability. Additionally, laws have been passed that require compliance with Accessible Design Standards. Some non-compliant conditions can be allowed to persist, called “grandfathering”, particularly when overall modifications being made are minor. Any work of significance will force many upgrades that would likely be instituted on a new building.


There are many challenges with these older buildings and this was just a brief overview of their causes and effects. It is critical to confront these concerns head on, ideally upon their discovery, or at least at the very beginning of your project. Problems get worse over time and chances are they’ve had too much time already. Be patient, do the hard work to investigate the problems, and find a good partner with expertise in understanding past and present detailing and construction practices, as they are best suited to put together the pieces, weaving them into a future that you can live with.

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