A carbon neutral future is coming – and adaptive reuse is one of the best strategies to get us there.
As we ramp up efforts to mitigate impacts of global warming, we have no choice but to rapidly and drastically cut the largest contributor to a warming world: carbon. Today we’re examining adaptive reuse and renovation as one of the most powerful ways architects can mitigate our carbon impact within the built environment. Through the practice of renovation and adaptation and by leading clients unfamiliar with the cost savings through the financial benefits of an adaptive reuse strategy, we can support the urgent need for a carbon neutral world.
A Winning Sustainability Strategy
We can’t get to zero carbon emissions through new buildings alone. When we consider that approximately two out of every three buildings that will exist in 2050 have already been built, decarbonizing our existing stock is the only successful path forward. Rather than demolishing a building and throwing away the resources that went into its construction, renovation and adaptive reuse salvage materials in the lowest impact way, while often augmenting performance to meet modern seismic and energy codes.
By reusing the structure, typically the highest intensity building component in terms of associated carbon emissions, we’re also avoiding new environmental impacts that would ensue from a completely new building. Moreover, renovations allow us to design to—and ideally exceed—current codes to improve the energy performance and operational carbon of the existing structure, making it perform as well as or better than many new buildings.
Strategies can also look beyond the structure to repurposing materials within. Existing materials have already spent their embodied carbon in the manufacturing and transport process, rendering them carbon neutral. Designers should take inventory of an existing space before renovation begins to look for materials that can be reclaimed and reused or sent back to manufacturers with take-back programs that recycle materials back into the same product type.
Updating existing structures to modern standards saves clients’ money. This approach cuts costs for construction and material, speeds up the timeline for project completion, and often drives increased demand from environmentally conscious tenants.
After the Center for Health Sciences’ South Tower at University of California, Los Angeles was damaged in the 1994 Northridge earthquake, it was determined that the ‘50s era former hospital required renovation or replacement. A lifecycle cost analysis led to key decisions for upgrading structural shear walls and foundations—saving $80,000,000—in lieu of demolishing the entire building. Through right-sizing HVAC equipment, use of chilled beans, daylighting controls and exterior skin upgrade, the renovation achieved a 30 percent energy reduction, saving the university both capital operational costs.
Additionally, ZGF’s pragmatic “developer” approach to the interiors maximized efficiency in all aspects. Interiors were designed as flexible, lab-ready spaces that could tailor to user specifications as they moved into the facility. The building is now in high demand among researchers, and University leaders recognize it as an example for system-wide renovations.
Similarly, a modernization project at an east coast university for a research and teaching building found upgrading the existing structure yielded a 25 percent savings over constructing a new building.
Some industries are adopting renovation at a faster clip to attract talent and distinguish their workplace. Tech companies, known for their prioritization of employee experience and appetite for innovation, are increasingly gravitating toward rehabilitated spaces. From a former airport hangar in Los Angeles to a historic bank building in Portland, companies like Google and Expensify are drawn to adaptive reuse not only for potential savings but the unique occupant experience that comes with the history and character of their transformed spaces. Yet this isn’t fast enough. Building renovations currently account for 0.5-1 percent of the U.S. building stock annually—a much slower pace than what’s needed to significantly impact emissions.
There is also considerable opportunity to transform the aging building stock in office parks around the country. In King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, the renovation of 500 North Gulph Road, a late-modernist office building located near a major retail hub, minimized the project’s embodied carbon impact while transforming the dated design into a high-demand tenant space. The approach was not only the most cost-effective option, but it aligned with the project’s accelerated timeline, providing speed to market to take advantage of current demand.
Architects have focused on operational carbon emissions for some time, but the next great challenge of embodied carbon is just starting to come into focus in the industry at large. We are excited that adaptive reuse and renovation are a growing part of our portfolio, offering significant opportunities to avoid the worst embodied carbon impacts and improve our overall building stock for a carbon-neutral future.