Before you demolish an older building, remember, the decision is final. Whatever value, history or opportunity for reuse that might have been possible will be gone forever! Our firm has long been associated with historic preservation and creative re-use of older buildings, so it may seem surprising that this blogpost is about tearing buildings down. I served for five years on Austin’s Historic Landmarks Commission, and our firm has won awards for our preservation and renovation projects. We’ve salvaged and rescued buildings that other professionals had declared a total loss, or beyond repair. However, there are times when we are asked, “is demolition ok?” Sometimes the answer is, “yes.”
But, before our firm will make a recommendation to tear down any existing building, we make a concerted effort to consider alternatives. Once those have been exhausted, the tough decision to demolish must be faced. Here’s a checklist of six essential questions that any owner should consider before deciding it is demolition time.
Can the existing structure be modified or moved to accommodate your current needs?
Renovations, additions or even small adjustments can, in many cases, completely change an existing space. Compared to new construction, this strategy can save money and conserve resources.
In one project, changing the location of several walls was all it took to convert a floor of empty dentists offices into a terrific space for new church offices. For another congregation, we expanded the fellowship hall instead of having to build new. This was done by tearing down walls to incorporate some adjacent storage rooms.
These simple expansions and renovations made old or unused spaces completely functional; as good or better than new construction. It required us to take a fresh look at these spaces and work creatively to turn what existed into a successful program.
This wood-framed house was saved by moving it to a new location where it was given a complete restoration.
Can you adapt or modify the structure for new uses?
On several occasions, we’ve worked on converting an old fellowship hall or sanctuary into offices and classrooms. For one project in particular, the congregation was determined to build a new sanctuary and tear their old building down. With some planning, we determined that the old structure was placed perfectly to serve as an administration wing. It connected to the new foyer and was close to the parking lot. If we had torn the building down, we would certainly have needed to put the same square footage of new construction in the same location.
So, be sure you aren’t throwing away a good opportunity by tearing down, when an existing building could be re-used effectively for something else.
This existing building was not adaptable to new uses. Note the temporary ramp and the window unit for air-conditioning. A new, vastly improved office and classroom wing was built to replace it.
Is it possible (and practical) to fix structural problems?
With modifications, repairs, or reinforcement many problems can be addressed. A creative collaboration with a structural engineer can sometimes make the difference.
When pieces of the columns on Our Lady of Guadalupe’s tower fell off, the Diocese was concerned, and asked us to look into various options to fix or remove the cupola. After several site visits, and a follow up meeting with a structural engineer, it was determined that wood framing inside the cupola was in good condition and just needed some reinforcement. The columns, though badly damaged, were non-structural. Previous patches and repairs were actually increasing their deterioration.
We recommended a comprehensive repair program that reinforced the structure, fixed the columns, and addressed number of other deficiencies, including major roof problems. The cost, compared to a total rebuild of the cupola, was pretty reasonable and not a lot more than demolishing and capping the old tower. The project was recognized by the Association of General Contractors with an award for quality construction in preserving history.
This two-story building had major structural problems. Note the large cracks in the brick wall and near the windows. This was one case where the problems were beyond reasonable repair and the building was demolished.
Does the building have historic or cultural value?
Always check with your local historic agency to see if your building is recognized or designated with historic landmark status. There could be significant regulations limiting or prohibiting an owner’s ability to modify or demolish their building. A thorough understanding of the building’s historic merit may help in determining what options, if any, are available.
But even without historic designation, there are many ways that an older building can have historic value. For many of our church clients, an old sanctuary is associated with decades of weddings, funerals or baptisms. Individuals feel a strong bond with these places and recall seminal moments of conversion, celebration, or grief. Making even small changes can evoke overwhelming responses. Without careful planning, and a truly pastoral approach, plans for a demolition or renovation can generate significant anger.
Considering the strong interest in historic buildings a better strategy is to take care of them and address deferred maintenance. One of Heimsath Architects’ partners, Sandy Stone, offers a great resource for maintaining historic properties. She calls it “the care and feeding of your historic building.” Check it out and see how proper care can help keep historic buildings in top shape for many years.
Are there entitlements or permitting advantages that will be forfeited?
Once the existing structure is removed, governing agencies may not honor previous privileges or non-conforming aspects of the existing structure.
Several years ago, a neighbor of ours wanted to update their old garage. Their contractor demolished the existing garage, but they were red-tagged when they started framing new walls on the same foundation. It turns out that the old slab was too close to the property lines to meet the current codes.
Through the simple act of removing the old structure, the contractor had forfeited their “non-conforming” status. I helped them with several rounds of hearings in order to get the required variances just to build back on the exact same footprint!
There are a surprising number of ways that old structures can have value based on changes or updates in development codes. And it’s not just the building that may be impacted. Be aware that many site development, parking, or landscaping requirements may be triggered by new construction, but may be exempted for a renovation of an existing building.
Will you spend more for new construction?
Have you factored in the total cost of demolishing the structure? These include the costs for permits, utility disconnects, and hazardous materials testing and remediation. Add these into the cost for new construction, and the numbers may prove that new construction is more expensive.
Of course, the opposite may sometimes be true; to build new or replace an old building may cost less. At times we’ve gone ahead and priced new construction as an alternative just to establish that the older building is sufficiently valuable to justify the additional cost. Sometimes people are willing to pay a premium to restore or preserve a certain building, but generally there is a limit. Especially with historic properties, some of our clients have been willing to invest more to preserve the past.
This historic church was too small for the growing congregation. A respectful addition was a better alternative to abandoning the old church and building new.
After considering all six of these question, if you can answer, “NO,” then it may be best to tear down an old building. There are times that the wrong building in the in the wrong place just has to go. But at least consider good stewardship when you opt for demolition. Some elements, like windows, doors or ornamental details can be re-used or recycled. Some lumberyards specialize in turning old timbers into flooring or finish lumber. There’s a market for salvaged bricks and stones. Old cement can be ground up and re-used in new concrete.
Remember that an old building is something passed on from a previous generation. As a present-day steward of this asset, it's up to you to determine what is best.