Buildings Buzz

The Decision to Modernize


Photo courtesy of KLM Digital

Over the past few years, commercial real estate faced its most challenging time in decades. The industry peaked at $500 billion in revenue in 2008 and hit a low of less than $350 billion only two years later. Budgets simply were not there to fund new builds, even though the need for space existed. This dip and subsequent lag in the economy helped shape a new trend – the modernization of old buildings.

Renovating a historic or aging property offers several key advantages to building owners:

Sustainability – Despite economic conditions, environmental concerns are mainstream and sustainability is paramount, particularly with commercial space. Preserving an old building is deemed more in line with caring for the environment today.

Zoning – Another reason for keeping an older building often has to do with zoning regulations. If an old building is torn down, regulations could specify that the replacement building have greater property line setbacks, which often defeats the reason to build new and increase square footage.

Public Funding – There are many tax incentives available to restore old buildings with modern conveniences, as well as improve their energy efficiency.

Competitive Edge – These properties tend to have more character and unusual characteristics, which can be particularly attractive in more populated areas.

Urbanization – There are more opportunities in cities to renovate and modernize based on the level of urbanization. The price and availability of land, along with possible jurisdictional restraints on new development, certainly impacts whether to keep an existing facility or build new.

Revitalizing an older building is a process that requires careful consideration and analysis. The question that always needs to be addressed before any action occurs is “will modernizing the building help it satisfy the need?” Whatever that need may be, the answer determines the next steps to take.

Additional questions to ask for a thorough understanding of the existing site and the building’s assets and limitations include:

  • Is the site compatible with the building’s purpose?
  • Can the building and site accommodate spatial requirements?
  • Can this be accomplished in compliance with zoning, building codes, and environmental issues?
  • Is the building structurally sound?
  • Can a new building that meets current jurisdictional spatial requirements be built on the site?
  • If the building is currently occupied, how can renovations take place safely?

Be sure to contact the local Historic Trust to determine if they have requirements that affect the changes made to the existing structure. You may also be able to tap into community support. With both of these groups, everything must mesh together to make the project successful.

There are a lot of factors to evaluate, but in the end, there is no substitute for knowing what to expect from the decision to modernize old or build new. Look at the project from a variety of angles and ask the tough questions. They will lead to the answers that makes sense for the project, your business, and the community at large.

John DiMenna is a senior vice president and partner at Rubeling & Associates, an architecture and interior design firm. Questions and comments welcomed at

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