“Experts predict that 90% of real-estate development in the next decade will focus on renovating and reusing existing structures.” – AutoDesk
Social media is awash with stories of how companies across the United States are managing in a world that has emerged from lockdown to find their workforce substantially changed. Large office spaces in cities like New York are left sitting idle while the firms that occupied them continue to utilize remote workers.
A host of big businesses have abandoned their high-rise lifestyle for smaller digs, and the outcome – acres of unused office space – impacts everyone in the community, especially the real estate and construction industries. According to commercial real estate broker iOptimize Realty, some 22% of Manhattan’s high-rises are vacant. “It’s like having over 40 skyscrapers the size of the Chrysler Building sitting empty.”
That’s just in one city. Extrapolate that vacancy rate across Chicago, Cleveland, Houston, St. Louis, Los Angeles, etc., and the scope is almost unimaginable. It may seem at first glance like a death knell for skyscrapers, but it is providing a chance for these towering buildings to undergo a renaissance by way of adaptive reuse.
Adaptive Reuse Explained
Adaptive reuse as a concept has existed since construction was in its infancy, but as the information and technology sector gained steam, allowing for more flexibility in workspaces and employing more remote workers, aided and perhaps accelerated by the world’s emergence from pandemic lockdown, it has gone from a boutique architectural concept to a necessity.
It can, to paraphrase Autodesk’s Sarah Jones, preserve heritage to transform vacant buildings into opportunities to revitalize communities, prolong the lifespan of buildings sustainably for social and financial advantage, and bring new value and purpose to disused buildings.
One such project is the repurposing of the Armstrong Rubber Company’s nine-story concrete behemoth in New Haven, Connecticut. Designed to be part of the Brutalist school of architecture by Marcel Breuer in 1968, it housed Armstrong until its sale to the Pirelli tire company in 1988. Pirelli sold the building in 2000, expecting it to be demolished to make way for a shopping mall.
Instead, it has become a beacon of sustainable adaptive reuse, a case study proving that anything can be updated and reimagined for new purposes. In this case, the building’s new purpose is as part of Hilton’s Tapestry Collection of hotels as the Hotel Marcel. Architect/Developer Bruce Redman Becker of Becker + Becker bought the building with the intent of creating a zero-emission, sustainable hotel.
“Instead of fossil fuels, the building runs on 100% renewable electricity for lighting, heating, air-conditioning, and hot water, harnessing energy with over 1,000 solar panels on its rooftop and parking canopies,” reported the Toledo Blade of the project in late 2023, just after the Hotel Marcel celebrated its grand opening, calling it, “America’s greenest hotel.”
New Haven’s Babbige Construction won the bid to recycle the iconic building, providing the muscle for the stringent 110,000 s.f. renovation so that the hotel could qualify for State Historic Preservation Offices, Passive House, and LEED Platinum certifications, which speak to the care taken to preserve the site while creating a modern and beautiful 165-room hotel and conference center.
As Becker told CNN of the project in 2021, “You have to reuse, recycle and reinvent existing buildings to be truly sustainable. The culture we have of tearing down and building new is really inefficient, and particularly when you have a building like (this one) which has such a great structure and that’s built to last for another century, not to repurpose it would have been a real shame.”
Reduce, Reuse, Recycle… With A Concrete Plan
Of course, it is no small task to recycle a concrete office building for residential purposes. You have to know exactly what was already built so that you can renovate efficiently and safely.
In the case of the Hotel Marcel, the concrete panels were precast with wire mesh or rebar reinforcements prior to construction, and the design footprint of most high-rise office buildings is remarkably similar: reinforced concrete (often post-tensioned) and glass construction surrounding a core of shafts for elevators. There may be one or two banks of bathrooms on each floor, large open workspace areas in the interior with offices at the exterior, to make use of the natural light, and acre upon acre of concrete covered in wood, insulation, carpeting, and the like.
Reimaging a Brutalist office building with fixtures dating to the late 1960s as a flagship sustainable hotel means a lot of precise design and planning. That is true of any concrete office space adaptive reuse initiatives. And all that planning needs to be done with accurate existing condition as builts, which may be found, if you’re lucky, but are almost always incomplete, inaccurate, and outdated.
Before you can design and plan, you must first intelligently visualize the existing space. In the case of PT concrete, especially, that can mean concrete scanning & imaging paired with 3D laser scanning and photogrammetry, to capture millimeter-accurate measurements and locations of every existing PT cable, piece of rebar, conduit, HVAC component, MEP feature, and sewer line. Because to proceed into renovation with an adaptive reuse project without accurate as-built 2D drawings and 3D BIM models means the architect, engineer, general contractor, subcontractors, and trades are all flying blind.
The cost of striking rebar, conduit, or a PT cable can set a project back by days, cause serious injury, structural damage, and cost up to $30,000 in repairs per incident, so it is crucial to know what is inside the slab before you cut, core, or drill.
GPRS has been Intelligently Visualizing The Built World® for customers since 2001. We offer a suite of infrastructure visualization services that provide you with accurate as builts, utility maps, and models, above and below ground, for new construction, renovation, adaptive reuse, and facility management.
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Frequently Asked Questions
What are some key design elements and strategies used in adaptive reuse projects for office spaces?
When considering an adaptive reuse project, it is important to take into account what purposes the space was originally built for, what functional adaptations will have to be made to renovate for its new purposes, if the new purpose complies with local zoning laws and is in regulatory compliance, and to create a design and plan that utilizes as much of the existing functionality as possible while making over the space.
That requires accurate existing as-builts, capturing construction progress and milestones, and creating a comprehensive project as-built upon completion for reference, operations, and maintenance. Learn how GPRS can visualize what is underneath and inside concrete construction to aid adaptive reuse projects, here.
Are there any challenges or limitations to implementing adaptive reuse construction in office spaces?
Aside from the considerations listed above, one of the biggest pushes in adaptive reuse is limiting emissions and reducing the building’s carbon footprint. That could mean choosing to build greener and utilize renewable energy sources in the renovation, and as above, requires extensive planning and design to produce efficient project outcomes. GPRS helps adaptive reuse projects plan and manage their renovations by mapping underground infrastructure and imaging concrete – both with a 99.8% accuracy rate. Learn how we do it, here.