fbpx Skip to main content

How to Master Adaptive Reuse Construction

Summit Design + Build’s Project Engineer II, Ben Cohen, shares his insights on how to master an adaptive reuse construction project.  

Adaptive reuse is the process of revitalizing old buildings for new and modern functions, other than those the building was originally designed. These projects play an extremely important role in maintaining the aesthetic of historic districts and protecting architecturally significant buildings. In order to master adaptive reuse, you must always expect the unexpected and take the following key points into consideration.

Discovered Conditions and Changes to the Plans

In order to accomplish the modern open floor plan design that is typical for today’s new structures, selective demolition and exploratory work are necessary to better understand the true existing structure of the building. It is extremely common to find undocumented adaptions to the “existing” drawings that impact layout, design, or have structural implications. In order to help flush these potential show-stopper issues out ahead of time, it is extremely important to have surveys and exploratory demolition done to confirm dimensions and assumptions before the general contractor is fully mobilized and beginning work on site. It’s not uncommon to come across conditions such as undocumented underground storage tanks, abandoned basements, structural wall footings that were narrower than the wall that was bearing on it, walls installed at all sorts of angles off of plumbing, and roofs built over other roofs! The more investigatory work you can do to give your general contractor a fuller picture the better.

Hazardous Material Abatement

When working in old buildings, hazardous construction materials such as asbestos, lead, mold and refrigerant are common to encounter. Dealing with, or at the very least surveying and identifying these materials before construction commences on site is extremely important, as discovering any of these during the selective demolition process could trigger work to stop until the materials are properly abated.

Water Intrusion

According to Architect Magazine’s article: When it Leaks it Pours, water intrusion makes up more than 70 percent of construction litigation. In order to avoid a lot of headaches down the road make sure to have a 3rd party expert review the architectural drawings and/or the site conditions to make sure the designs proposed apply to, and will work well with, the existing structure. The specialists we’ve had the most success with in the past have been Wiss, Janney, Elstner Associates, Inc. Having a separate pair of eyes on the drawings to ensure the building envelope design is robust and detailed to be fully water tight is money well spent.


Depending on the age of the building, and of the mechanical, electrical and plumbing elements therein, you may choose to re-use, abandon in place, or fully remove and re-do these components. If the plan is to keep these elements in a workable condition, make sure the existing equipment meets the current code. If so, a plan must be made to protect them from water, dust and damage during the construction process. If the plan is to demolish and start fresh, make sure that all assumptions and dimensions are verified on-site. Are the existing shafts sufficiently sized for the new ductwork, plumbing risers and electrical homeruns?  Do the duct sizes and light placements work with the given floor to ceiling heights? Is there sufficient water pressure for any additions being made to the existing structure? The more of these types of questions you can answer before work starts on site the better off you’ll be.

In conclusion, the way to master adaptive re-use projects is to do your due diligence. Surveying and exploratory work are upfront costs that are well worth the expense and will help reduce headaches and costly change orders while the full gears of construction are in motion. Additionally, make sure to work with general contractors who have done this type of work before. When it comes to working in older buildings, experience plays a major role. Check out your GC’s previous projects, ask for references and walk the space with them to see how comfortable they feel with your vision. You can check out Summit Design + Build’s extensive adaptive reuse work here. Adaptive reuse is an incredible way to breathe new life into an old building while preserving the historic value and local resources and will be an undertaking worth pursuing if you follow these guidelines!