July/August 2013

Research Maximizes Renovation Projects

Taking time to understand the owner’s business and goals for a space often results in a renovation project that does much more than simply upgrade equipment.


Chris Sullivan, C.C. Sullivan


The renovation universe comprises a wide variety of project approaches that span a spectrum from mere product replacement at one end to major reconstruction—additions, expansions, and other structural reconfigurations—on the other end. Yet even one of these categories involves quite a range of options: A product changeout can be relatively minor, for example, such as swapping LED lamps for existing halogen or incandescent bulbs, or it can be as extensive as a roof replacement, requiring new insulation board, waterproofing, membrane, and ballast.


At The Drawing Center in New York, a museum specializing in works on paper, the firm WXY added 50% more gallery and programming space and a sophisticated lighting scheme that com-bines natural light and new, non-UV-emitting LED fixtures.

Retrofits, which typically describe a system changeout (the roofing example straddles the line between replacement and retrofit), contrast with building renovations, which tend to be extensive, multi-system projects such as a gut-rehabilitation of an old office building.

All of these terms describe the removal of existing building components and installation of new products and systems. The more complex and extensive the project, the further along the spectrum it moves, where the design-and-construction teams are bigger—and the bills can make owners turn pale. Toward the more-complex end, there are also more code considerations and regulatory hurdles to address.

Each project approach has its place and time, says Layng Pew, AIA, managing principal for WXY Architecture + Urban Design, which recently renovated a major museum in the firm’s home town of New York, adding a Drawing Center in the process. “It’s important not to take a boilerplate approach to project planning or material and system selection, which can cause you to miss opportunities,” he said. “The first step for us is to understand where the client is coming from and how they want to grow.”

Know the owner’s goals

Some rules of the road may apply to any situation, experts agree. Replacement projects, for example, are meant to be tactical, simple, quick, and cost-effective, but in reality they may suffer from a lack of experienced oversight. Too often they are driven by a single product vendor or specialty contractor whose sole aim is to make a sale. Of course, the seller may have the requisite knowledge to handle the work, and if the owner offers competent oversight of the project, it should all turn out fine.

Joshua Zinder Architecture + Design (JZA+D), Princeton, NJ, is currently leading selective renovations of 506 Carnegie Center, a building in a commercial office complex in Princeton owned by Boston Properties.

“For institutions and other owners that occupy or otherwise retain their buildings for the long term, any replacement project offering a good return on investment or life-cycle cost is worth consideration,” said Marlyn Zucosky, IIDA, partner and director of interior design at JZA+D. “Whether it’s durable flooring or LED lighting, we can review the ROI or conduct an LCA [life-cycle analysis] to weigh the costs and benefits from installation through the disposal, recycling, or reuse of the products at the end of their useful life.”


Joshua Zinder Architecture + Design (JZA+D), Princeton, NJ, is currently leading selective renovations of 506 Carnegie Center, a building in a commercial office complex in Princeton owned byBoston Properties.

As an example, New York architect Lee H. Skolnick, FAIA, describes the high ROI of signage and exhibit replacements, where everything from informational displays and entire museum installations are swapped out to better support the building-owner’s core mission. The same is true of educational presentations that reflect a school’s curriculum or a manufacturer’s product line, or a brand-boosting showplace simply meant to pull in more traffic to a cultural landmark.

For the Mohonk Preserve Visitor Center in New Paltz, NY, which reopened this spring with new signage, a topographical display, touch table, and other exhibits, the design team at Lee H. Skolnick Architecture + Design Partnership, New York, also adapted the gift shop for reuse as an orientation theater and added a handicapped-accessible sensory trail. “As opposed to schools, which tend to be curriculum- and standards-oriented, when you are developing highly interpretive exhibits and interior environments, a key to determining whether the investment is worthwhile is knowing the audience,” noted Skolnick. “Research on their needs and interests allows us to create the best entry points for getting the visitors engaged with the subject matter.”

This market orientation is common among even institutional projects and a major driver for replacement projects and full renovations alike.

Beware conflicts of interest

While product replacement may be undertaken by the sole vendor or by in-house facilities’ staff, system retrofits by definition tend to require design guidance by an architect, engineer, or specialized consultants, or a mix of these professionals. In some cases, the manufacturer of a retrofit system may offer in-house engineering and expediting of approvals at a relatively low cost.

For the energy retrofit market, the role of the 100 or so U.S. energy service companies (ESCOs) registered with the Department of Energy, Washington, has been a double-edged sword for building owners. ESCOs typically aim to provide an energy-saving upgrade opportunity with minimal capital investment. Anticipated energy reductions are used to finance the new products, systems, engineering, operations support, and often even a warranty. That’s good news. But on the downside, many of the ESCOs are affiliated with utilities or product manufacturers, so they have a strong incentive to load up the retrofit with the product brands and fuel types that make them money, whether it’s lighting, HVAC systems, solar panels, or liquid natural gas.

Still, energy retrofits are a fast-growing segment of the renovation universe, and projections by research firm SBI Energy, Rockville, MD, show that by 2015 as much as 15% of the total market could be driven by upgrades to building MEP (mechanical, electrical, and plumbing) systems. The benefits of energy retrofits, however, depend heavily on proper operations and maintenance practices following the work.

Energy retrofits are only a fraction of the market for sustainability-focused green renovations. The trend took root in utility incentives for demand-side reductions and later the 2005 Energy Policy Act, which provided large tax breaks for investments in energy-saving technologies. Then the 2007 Energy Independence and Security Act gave added impetus to the use of renewable energy systems.

The greenest renovations

According to Michael Binette, AIA, NCARB, and principal of The Architectural Team, Chelsea, MA, in some projects it’s possible to recycle on a very large scale—redeploy entire buildings, existing materials, structure, and MEP systems—saving money and resources in the process. Some of these adaptive-reuse projects for historical factories open the door for adding modern cogeneration systems or even reviving hydroelectric capabilities. They can also accommodate renewable energy, using their large, flat roofs to support new photovoltaic panels and solar thermal collectors and by drilling geothermal wells below. Existing buildings usually can be reconnected to the grid more easily than most greenfield sites, too.


For the Haverford School, MGA Partners restored the 1903 Wilson Hall, designed by noted architects Fred Furness and Allen Evans, and paired it with a sophisticated modernist expansion for a major new academic building certified LEED Gold.

“When evaluating the best gains, look for simple answers first,” Binette said. “We work often with historic mills, where new insulation offers the biggest benefit at the lowest cost. We have achieved thermal barrier values as high as R-23 with medium-density spray foams in combination with cellulose insulation on century-old masonry structures.” One such case was the Oliver Lofts in Boston, an adaptive re-use, mixed-income residential property that was formerly a brewery warehouse.

The return on energy-related upgrades is well established. For green buildings and sustainability retrofits, there is a growing body of information underscoring the financial benefits of upgrades focused on occupant health and well being, lower toxicity, and occupant productivity. One study of hundreds of LEED-rated buildings by the Univ. of San Diego and the real-estate data company CoStar, Washington, showed rents increased by more than $11 and resale values jumped more than $170/sq. ft. for green buildings, compared with their non-green neighbors.

This value can be captured for long-term property holders, too. For example, the Haverford School, Haverford, PA, undertook a $28-million restoration and expansion for an upper school and administration building to meet the educational needs of information-age students within and adjacent to a historical 1903 hall. The LEED Gold landmark facility is also a teaching tool for environmental responsibility, according to Daniel F. Kelley, FAIA, senior partner with MGA Partners, Philadelphia, and lead designer.

“The project incorporates many strategies to minimize the building’s carbon footprint and create a healthy environment for learning,” said Kelley. “It has launched the school’s heightened commitment to sustainable practice across campus.” One example: an array of specialized meters and controls that give students and teachers real-time feedback on energy and water usage.

More than mere looks

Other retrofit and renovation projects are geared toward aesthetic and performance upgrades, such as exterior recladding and overcladding. A number of school districts and healthcare providers are adding continuous exterior insulation, or CI, to existing buildings by overcladding. In addition to a renewed look, it’s an effective technique for improving acoustics and the effective R-value while controlling condensation and air infiltration.

Yet some renovation approaches don’t work well. In many cases it’s because the old building can’t support the kinds of renovations envisioned, leading to costly added work. But usually projects fall short of expectations because the goals and the design vision are out of alignment, said Jay M. Brotman, AIA, a partner with the architecture firm Svigals + Partners, New Haven, CT.

“We use a process of lab planning called Phusion that is ideal for these complex renovation projects,” said Brotman, who recently led the transformation of a corporate complex in New Haven, into the W-B 24 scientific research hub for Yale Univ.’s growing West Campus Integrated Science & Technology Center. “Phusion begins with a visioning session in the earliest part of the planning phase to establish a description of a future-state based on shared values among the various stakeholders,” Brotman explained.

For WXY’s work on the Drawing Center, the client’s planned expansion strategy led to a feasibility study. The cultural group had long considered a high-profile new building at the World Trade Center site, and compared that with another site several blocks away. The museum leadership eventually decided to stay at its existing, and iconic, location, said Layng, based on the favorable ROI of an extensive renovation including new gallery interiors, MEP systems, skylights, and stairs for the 19th-century loft building.

Behind the decision was a careful accounting of organizational needs and long-term vision, followed by a detailed analysis of design options and associated costs. “From these granular details come the inspiration and foundation of truly great projects, where their unique attributes fully serve the core of each organization’s goals,” said Brotman. “But this is only the case if the planning phase has thoroughly nurtured these granular details to generate something larger from them.”

Kelley of MGA Partners, a firm that has expertise in university live-learn environments, agreed. “Often our challenge as the architect and planner is to help shape a new organizational system while adapting physical spaces to accommodate how they work.”

The many different approaches to successful renovation boil down to extensive planning that involves everyone with a horse in the race. That key element, however, may be just about the only thing any given group of renovations has in common. As the saying goes, if you’ve seen one renovation, you’ve seen one renovation. Each project brings enough challenges and opportunities to keep the entire team on their toes for the duration.

Author
Chris Sullivan is principal of C.C. Sullivan, a Montclair, NJ, marketing firm specializing in the commercial-building market.

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