What to Know Before Tackling a Renovation Project

As technology moves forward, so does architecture and construction. Architects, designers, and planners around the world now have infinite tools and resources to design and build the cities of today and the future.  As promising as this may sound, new construction is also consuming our world’s limited resources faster than we can replenish them.

This situation leaves architects with an important responsibility: the rehabilitation and reuse of the existing built environment. This means using creative thinking and design to save and incorporate old or historic buildings that currently exist, in the present and future of our cities, by adapting them through creative and sensitive treatments.

There are as many ways to implement adaptive reuse in buildings as there are buildings in the world, so the question lies in where and how to start. Why is adaptive reuse important? What aspects should we have in mind before tackling a renovation project? How to approach these projects?

University Library by OFFICE Kersten Geers David Van Severen. Image © Bas Princen

Why are renovation and adaptive reuse important?

In conversation with Alejandro García Hermida, professor of Architectural Heritage Intervention of Universidad Alfonso X el Sabio in Madrid, Spain, says “It’s about preserving history, identity, and culture of urban settings and buildings, the preservation of buildings of such quality and beauty that would otherwise be very hard to reach.” He talks about “transforming and renovating buildings to make them more efficient, more beautiful and sustainable, making them favorable to the welfare of the community that inhabits them.” [1] It is a way of keeping memories, history, and identity intact.

Rick ten Doeschate, Partner Architect of Civic Architects, lead office in the recently completed project of LocHal Library in Tilburg, Netherlands, has also an interesting approach. He says "it is a good and sustainable idea to consider using what you already have, before adding something new. It is frankly kind of ridiculous and lazy to not explore re-use. There’s more to it than simple pragmatism, however. Re-use is a very effective way to achieve poetic complexity. Perfection is usually quite boring, the most interesting buildings bear the marks of different eras and design ideologies." [2] 

LocHal Library by CIVIC architects + Braaksma & Roos architectenbureau + Inside Outside + Mecanoo. Image © Stijn Bollaert

Particularly in the case of LocHal Library, there was a previous analysis on the historical narrative of the building, once a locomotive shed where trains were built and repaired, being a crucial site in defining the city of Tilburg's industrial and labor profile. "By converting the vacant structure into a public library, the most generous type of public building, and at the same time creating space to work, its story of ‘steel and sweat’ is brought back again to the greater public and future generations."[2]

LocHal Library by CIVIC architects + Braaksma & Roos architectenbureau + Inside Outside + Mecanoo. Image © Stijn Bollaert

In terms of sustainability, renovation of existing buildings avoids the use of unnecessary materials and reduces demolition and construction waste, taking advantage of the materials that are already on location. Significantly reducing the transportation of new materials to the site contributes to the protection of the environment as well. Alejandro states that it is important to “take advantage of existing buildings that were once originally conceived under social, economic and ecological parameters that did not depend on excessive fuel consumption and applied reusable and less contaminating materials.” [1]

What aspects do we have to know before tackling a renovation project?

Cristalleries Planell Civic Center by H Arquitectes. Image © Adria Goula

Once we clearly understand the importance of refurbishing our built environment, it is necessary to run a thorough analysis of the site and the building’s history to detect what can be rescued or what has to be discarded. According to Alejandro, knowing the building’s history and understanding its constructive and structural functions is key for “avoiding the introduction of materials and techniques that are not proper to the building itself and that can potentially damage it.” [1]

n’UNDO is a Spanish architectural research office that has an interesting view of adaptive reuse in architecture and cities. In their ‘manifesto’ they state that architecture, urbanism, and urban planning should not only involve construction and new production, but also repair, care, cleaning and recovery of what is already there. “Reuse, regenerate, revert, recover, rehabilitate, revitalize, relocate, restore before new construction, adding value to what exists.” [3]

These views are particularly useful when it comes to raising consciousness on what it means to work on an old building by being completely aware of what we are facing in order to make the best decisions. Sometimes the most minimal interventions are the most beneficial for the building. Overall this research and analysis should lead to an accurate project plan that would result in a successful renovation. Meaning that the building is saved from the inevitable passing of time, given a new use and life while keeping its integrity and features that make it unique.

How to approach these projects?

One Room Hotel by dmvA-architects. Image © Bart Gosselin

- Decide the correct intervention for the building. Differences between each treatment (preservation, rehabilitation, restoration, and reconstruction) imply more or fewer interventions and different construction techniques. Choosing the most appropriate intervention is done through the consideration of the current physical condition of the building, the new proposed use, and the codes and regulations of the site.

- Adaptive reuse gives the property a new compatible use by repair, alterations, and additions, and can maintain the features which give the building historic, cultural and architectural value.  It is important to note that “the ultimate use of the building determines what requirements will have to be met, some potential uses of a historic building may not be appropriate if the necessary modifications would not preserve the building’s historic character.” [4]

- Follow specific guidelines and recommendations on how to handle each different material (masonry, wood, metals) and building features (roofs, windows, entrances, structural systems, mechanical systems, interior features, and finishes.)

- Materials that must be retained in the building should be protected and maintained properly. If there are larger alterations, such as the replacement of a certain feature, this new addition should “be designed and constructed so that the character-defining features of the historic building, its site, and setting are not negatively impacted.” [4]

- If chemical and physical treatments are needed, they should be done in the gentlest way possible, avoiding treatments that could damage any historic or particular feature of the building.

- Structural systems should be correctly identified, retained and preserved. 

- Climate conditioning should be addressed in order to guarantee a sustainable climatic comfort but always keeping the building's architectural expression.

- New elements introduced into the renovated building setting should be compatible, but it is also highly recommended that it is differentiated from the original construction itself. That way new elements do not become poor imitations. [4]

Patijn House by Caroline Lambrechts & Machteld D'Hollander. Image © Filip Dujardin

Carrying out a renovation project is certainly a challenge but also a very rewarding task. We must remember that each building is unique and that procedures and decisions are specific to each project. Teams involved in these projects should be committed and have the ability to adapt since these types of projects usually bring up unpredictable situations as they develop. In the end, the reward is being able to keep a part of history, adding contemporary value, and bringing new functions to everyday life today.

Tiro al Blanco Art Gallery by Progresivo de Arquitectura. Image © Eduardo Sendra Dueñas


About this author
Cite: Paula Pintos. "What to Know Before Tackling a Renovation Project" 09 May 2019. ArchDaily. Accessed . <https://www.archdaily.com/916461/what-to-know-before-tackling-a-renovation-project> ISSN 0719-8884

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