Future Forward: Transform Vacant Singular-Use Buildings for Year-Round Occupancy
Nicole Keeler is the director of sustainability at NELSON Worldwide.
Design for an Unknowable Future
In normal years, millions of square feet of single-purpose buildings are unused for a substantial part of the year, including shopping malls, hotels and entertainment venues. During 2020 and a global pandemic, these same single-purpose buildings became even more vacant, and some previously vacant buildings may never again acquire full-time or even part-time tenants as they become unused “eyesores” inside their communities.
Keeler believes many of these single-purpose buildings can be repurposed relatively quickly and inexpensively for new uses, including temporary small-office space or medical facilities. She also believes that all buildings should be designed and built to be able to adapt to future circumstances that may be out of owners’ control, so future vacancies and the associated financial costs can be avoided.
“It is my opinion that we should absolutely be looking at every space not just for what its immediate demand is, but what potentially could come,” she explains.
As an unfortunate example, she cites an industrial company she worked with that decided to add 400 additional retail locations in less than a year. But within four years, Amazon and Home Depot and other wholesale and online competitors emerged, and foot traffic at all these new stores decreased dramatically.
“So now they own all this real estate, they have all these new buildings, they invested all that money in building them,” she notes. “What do you do with them? Do you start closing them? Do you sell them? Is there somebody else even interested in buying them? Maybe that takes a year, maybe it takes 10 years.”
Repurposing What’s Available
According to Keeler, it’s more economical and efficient in most cases to repurpose existing buildings rather than build new ones that require years of preparation in terms of design, permitting, roads, utilities and everything else that goes into a new building.
“That infrastructure is there [in existing buildings],” she says. “The individual spaces have been designed already, so they already have plumbing and electrical and everything drawn to all these smaller units.”
She also notes that reusing existing building stock is the “greenest approach” to maintain and protect as much green and pervious space as possible, so it can continue to absorb water and not be all hardscape.
“By utilizing what we already have, we’re not taking away more of this open space that helps create or simulate some kind of balance between a healthy environment and the built environment,” she adds. “By spreading out the buildings a little more and having green space integrated throughout, we keep the air cooler and cleaner between the buildings, which improves the air quality, which is better for occupants and all the natural life around it.”
Keeler also notes that redesigning a building to make it “greener” and more efficient can have significant economic benefits. Her company has seen vacancy rates for green buildings improve by more than 60 percent, and studies show that for the generations coming out of college right now, up to 80 percent of respondents say they’re not just looking for an employer who is sensitive to the environment and social justices, but also that the company they’re interviewing to work for occupies space in a LEED-certified building.
“All retrofits come with costs, no matter how large or small, but typically, unless the building is really suffering poorly, it’s going to be more economical to stay in an existing facility and retrofit it vs. trying to break ground on a new site,” she says.
Prepare for Repurposing in the First Design
Although many buildings can be repurposed, the original design’s flexibility can make it much easier, cheaper and efficient. She cites modern office buildings, hotels and medical facilities as often being well designed for future flexibility.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many hotels were at less than 30 percent capacity. To help with the unexpected situation and add occupancy, some unused spaces were quickly and successfully repurposed to put small offices or hospital beds in those unused rooms.
When designing office buildings, Keeler recommends setting up column lines with walls between the spaces to host the plumbing and electrical that would be needed for the next tenant, should they need to be repurposed.
“The biggest misfortune of a singular-use building is that if it can’t easily be retrofitted, if it isn’t designed to be agile and flexible in its existing conditions, then it’s probably the most likely to suffer the worst by not being reoccupied and becoming a lost and aging asset and an eyesore to the community,” says Keeler.