Renovating old buildings

Reduce, reuse, recycle is the modern mantra reminding us to limit the amount of waste we create and to live as sustainably as we can. For most of us, the items we reuse and recycle are small – jam jars, milk containers and weekend newspapers. So perhaps it's time to think about reducing, reusing and recycling on a much larger scale. How about applying the same principle to buildings?

An Australia house with tall ceiling
ARTICLE Persephone Nicholas

As renovators, we’re always interested in how properties can be improved. Usually we focus on residential property, but imagine how exciting – and challenging – it might be to adapt an older community or commercial building, such as a church, fire station or shop, into a one of a kind home.  

The value of adaptive reuse

Known as adaptive reuse, it’s a trend The Royal Australian Institute of Architects supports for its environmental, economic and social benefits. The Institute also says it promotes innovation by challenging architects and designers to find new solutions to current challenges.  
“As development pressures increase in our cities, more heritage buildings are being reused, producing some excellent examples of creative designs that retain heritage significance.” 
Adaptive Reuse, The Royal Australian Institute of Architects
One of the advantages of adaptive reuse is that suitable properties are often located in the heart of the community or commercial district and so are close to transport and other amenities.  

First step: research

Zoning or planning regulations may affect whether or not a building can be reused or redeveloped. The local council is usually the best source of information about what is and isn’t possible and can also advise on building consents for change of use. 
Once it’s confirmed that the property may be converted to residential use, it’s time to take a closer look at the building to understand the scope of the project. Time spent researching and planning at this stage will be time well spent and could save a great deal of time and money further down the track.
Ken Fern, Construction Manager with Rachel Whitford’s Refresh Renovations branch in Brisbane, was part of a team that adapted an old church into a childcare centre. 
He says research is an important part of the adaptive reuse process: ‘Spend some time researching, especially for budgeting; you need to know what you might come across. You might have to invest in a structural engineer and you might need to engage a surveyor.’
A lady is inspecting an old house
He says it’s vital to know if a building has historical value: ‘If a building is heritage listed you might not be able to take a wall down and build a new one. It’s really important to be fully aware of everything.’
Renovating a property that hasn’t previously been used as a home brings extra challenges. You’ll need to ensure ceilings are high enough; decide on the location of plumbing and power sources; consider wall and window placements; ensure the building has adequate insulation (for noise as well as heating/cooling); make arrangements for storage and removal of garbage; and plan for off street parking.
For properties with deep floor plates, you’ll also need to address the challenge of bringing light and air into the centre of the building.
Health and safety requirements, for example compliance with noise and fire safety standards, must be considered too. The local council is the best place to find out about these.

Creating green space

You may also need to think about creating or adapting outdoor space so that it complements the new home. An old school building may have plenty of outdoor space, for example, while an old shop or fire station may not and you may want to consider including a terrace, balcony or courtyard as part of the project brief.
A green outdoor space in a renovate house

Budget matters

Each adaptive reuse project is unique so preparing a renovation budget may not be straightforward, but it’s safe to assume you’ll need a higher budget than for a standard renovation. This is particularly true if you plan to include major works such as a new roof, rewiring or new plumbing. Restoration of original features such as stained glass or woodwork can also be expensive.
‘There’s a lot more to refurbishing old buildings than just fixing things up and giving them a coat of paint.  Bringing things back to life, like original stained windows, can take a lot more skill than building something new, ‘ says Fern.

Labours of love

While there’s no doubt that adaptive reuse projects can be challenging, the result is worth all the hard work, says Fern.
‘You’ve really got to want to do it, rather than just building a new house, and you need to think about every single thing that you touch. Sometimes you need to use old tools to get the same finish rather than just using a circular saw or an electric plane. Putting original hinges and locks back together and sourcing everything so it looks original takes time but you get a lot more satisfaction from doing things the proper way.’

You might be interested in reading about Renovating a pavilion style home.

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*All information is believed to be true at time of publishing and is subject to change.

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