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Breathing new life into old buidings

Shifting market conditions, changing consumer demands, and evolving energy efficiency and IEQ standards have urged developers to seek hidden opportunities within their existing property portfolio. What can be done to ensure repurposed buildings and spaces reflect best design and installation practices? Hannah Jo Uy has the story…

| | Feb 20, 2020 | 8:14 am
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Saeed Al Abbar

Portfolio optimisation has been the biggest driver for repurposing in the GCC region, says Saeed Al Abbar, Managing Director, AESG, who adds that the challenging nature of the market has pushed real estate owners to reassess their portfolio. “The logical thing to do is to look at where they can increase yield, and with a more challenging market, we will continue to see a lot more of this,” he says.

Sangeetha B

Sangeetha B., Deputy Chief Executive Officer, Al Fajer, reports a similar trend, drawing from her experience in building operations and management. “We are aware of the emerging need to give building stock a new lease of life,” she says. “This is imperative in a market where companies are faced with shrinking budgets but are required to improve the work environment and creatively repurpose commercial spaces.” Weighing in, Prabhu Ramachandran, CEO, Facilio, cites increased focus on sustainability, diversification of the regional economy and greater appreciation towards the merits of smart, digitally enabled infrastructure as driving the need to repurpose the existing inventory of buildings.

Prabhu Ramachandran

Undoubtedly, repurposing has become a reality in the Middle East and one that takes on many forms, says Al Abbar, providing insight on AESG’s encounters with such projects. “In this economic climate, some projects stop and are put on hold before things get started again with a new team,” he says. “In these cases, we have been involved in building surveys of halfcompleted constructions, to see the status of what is and is not installed and what equipment is or is not there.”

Al Abbar says AESG has also been involved in reassessing buildings in high-value land. He points to the example of a building that was built 30 or 40 years ago that continues to be popular in terms of location and enjoys high footfall. “We would be studying how the building can be upgraded to be fit for modern use, for any typology, residential, hotels, etc.,” he says, “because the layout and designs people wanted 30 or 40 years ago are different from what they want today.” Similarly, Al Abbar says, repurposing also follows when there is a desire to change the development to cope with changes in consumer habits. “Globally, we are seeing that a lot in particular with retail spaces,” he says. “With the advent of online retail, brick and mortar retail has been less in demand.”


Sougata Nandi

Sougata Nandi, CEO, 3e advisory, says it is important to consider that as repurposing is essentially changing the end use of the built-environment from the original intent and purpose, sustainability inevitably takes a hit in such developments especially in the way it is conducted in the region. Many beautiful buildings in the UAE, he explains, have been transformed from residential to commercial units, so landlords can get better returns and revenue for the same space. “Repurposing typically happens with that idea in mind,” he says. “A particular building has been designed for a specific purpose; now, the landlord realises with the changing market dynamics, he would not get buyers, or maybe demand for offices in that locality has risen, and resident demands go down. Repurposing, by and large, happens predominantly because of purely commercial reasons, and commercial gains are never a good driver for sustainability.”

Nandi emphasises that the level of difficulty varies depending on the project. “If you convert an office to residential, it’s much easier. Typically, an office building has higher requirements than residential, and an office has higher density and more electrical equipment that go for longer hours,” he says. “But, residential to office is a bit more complicated. Now, the installed equipment don’t have the capacity to meet the new end use.” Nandi says in such cases, authorities will also need to approve the change, and it would only be possible if either the residential to be converted into an office is already overdesigned, which means it has extra equipment and capacity that can cater to revised occupant requirements, or the building has capacity to add more equipment. “However, in case where you want to convert a residential to a restaurant, for example, that is a strict no-no,” he says. “The shift is significantly too much to handle. So, when you talk about repurposing, from what to what are you repurposing? If you are going down from higher requirement to lower requirement, then there is no major impact on sustainable parameters, whether energy efficiency or indoor air quality. If you are going from lower demand to higher demand, obviously there will be significant impact, and it may not even be feasible. You have to address every project case to case.”

Ramachandran agrees, pointing out that while buildings are optimal when they are designed around the purpose they are expected to serve, in repurposed spaces, the challenge is to extract performance that fits a new use just as effectively. “A warehouse transformed into an office space will need considerable alteration to deliver the expected IEQ for the workforce it will host,” he says. “Factors such as built-in insulation, the natural light the building draws, a new profile of electrical and plumbing requirements and much more, need to be accounted for.”

Nandi adds that considerations must also be made when it comes to fire and life safety systems. “Firefighting system designs are based on the number of occupants in the building,” he says. “Residential have lower occupant density compared to office. When you have a fire-related incident, the biggest challenge is to evacuate the occupants that are much higher, and there is also a different level of exit capacity. It would impact everything.” Other crucial considerations, Nandi adds, would be elevators, whether they are able to cope with the shift in carrying capacity and volume of traffic. “If a tower has been designed for residential and used for offices, there will be a greater number of people during peak time traffic.”

Al Abbar says code compliance can also be a challenge when it comes to repurposed buildings. “It’s about balancing and making sure the upgrade is up to the standards of new codes with fire escapes, stairways, doors and windows,” he says. “Incorporating this could be a challenge.” Additionally, Al Abbar says upgrading installed equipment can also be an issue. “We have had projects where there is existing equipment,” he says, “but they are not maintained and commissioned well, so that is an expensive refurb that sometimes come as a shock to the client who didn’t know they would need to buy new equipment, but when you look at the existing equipment it has not been designed, commissioned, operated and maintained right.”


Majd Fayyad

Majd Fayyad, Technical Manager, Emirates Green Building Council, however, points out that repurposing existing buildings is still inherently sustainable. “The construction materials are already on-site, which will lead to a reduction of embodied carbon associated with building materials,” he says. Dr Gerhard Schmitt, Director of the Singapore-ETH Centre and Professor at the Chair of Information Architecture at ETH Zurich, also highlights the positive impact of repurposed buildings on sustainability initiatives, calling it the smart and responsive thing to do. “They re-use the structural and most of the outside material of the buildings and avoid the production of new building material, which is one of the main contributors to climate change,” he says.

Dr Gerhard Schmitt

Dr Schmitt adds, however, that it is easier to repurpose architecture of highquality than buildings that were designed and built for a single purpose, minimising first cost. “There are many examples of medieval architecture that is still in use today with new purpose,” he says. “In Singapore, Dempsey Hill stands for a more recent example of repurposing large military barracks into attractive dining and shopping ensembles.” In the last century, Dr Schmitt adds, unused but spacious production facilities, often in inner cities, have been turned into attractive lofts with a minimum of investment and a maximum of rent. “Investors or building owners, be it public or private, must see the potential in repurposing building structures,” he says. “The proposal to do so might lead to the request to the city to change the zoning law or the land use pattern. The trend towards high-density mixed-use neighborhoods is both a result and a precondition for repurposing existing structures.”

Al Abbar also believes it is important to look at the opportunities in repurposing, rather than the challenges it poses, as repurposed spaces can be made to reflect best practices that has been gained over the years. “It is still much better to repurpose and refurbish a building than knocking it down,” he says. “When there is major refurb taking place, it is the most effective opportunity to incorporate energy efficiency, because you are un-occupying the building. That provides an opportunity for changes and to design and upgrade construction to present-day standards. Twenty or 30 years ago, there was not much desire for more air changes; now, you can bring in IEQ equipment. A major change of use or refurb would typically improve the quality of building and indoor air quality.”


For Dr Schmitt, the first key indicator that will determine the best path forward, and ensure buildings are not only repurposed, but repurposed well, is to compare how much CO2 would be set free by the processes of demolishing the existing structure, transporting and processing the demolition materials, preparing the site for the new structure, then constructing the new building. He says that stakeholders must also reflect on how big are the necessary changes that need to be made to the original primary structure in order to facilitate the new use. “This is directly related to the flexibility of the existing structure and its quality potential for reuse,” he says. “Stable and spatially generous primary structures are better suited for repurposing than complex buildings constructed in heavy materials, for which each removal of a wall requires a sequence of follow-up actions to guarantee structural safety.” Dr Schmitt also points out that buildings that do not come close to the latest standards in fire safety and earthquake resistance are less attractive to repurpose.

Fayyad points out that the success of a repurposing project, essentially depends on whether or not the repurposing goals are met. Indicators of this, he says, are dependent on the cost of repurposing compared to demolition and building it anew, retaining the building’s character and aesthetics, which is key for historic buildings, and the quality and expertise of the team performing it.

Weighing in, Sangeetha says that at Al Fajer, the aim is to evaluate the success of a repurposed building through a holistic economic and socio-cultural viewpoint. “The decision to repurpose an existing structure instead of building a new one boils down to cost savings,” she says. “A sizable cost savings not only indicates success but also means more money for future maintenance and operations. On the other hand, we ask if the new function of the building has revitalised a neglected area, if it has improved the living conditions, and if it has contributed to a sustainable future.” For Ramachandran, the key indicators of a successful repurposing are efficient resource and energy consumption, as well as delivering performance that is ideal for the building’s new purpose. “Effective repurposing,” he says, “should leverage the existing strengths of a building, adapting them through the effective use of redesign principles and appropriate technologies.”

Anwaar Al Shimmari

For Anwaar Al Shimmari, Director – Design Department, Chief Innovation Officer, UAE Ministry of Infrastructure Development, to arrive at best practices in the built-environment, be it new buildings or retrofit projects, it is important to promote more specialised training that will educate stakeholders on technical matters. “We need proper training,” she says. “I still see training that is very superficial except for those from credible entities. I would encourage more professional training, not only specialised matters, but also you need to have it gradual. Some people they don’t know from where to start.”

In view of the importance repurposed buildings hold in the unfolding sustainability narrative, it is vital for stakeholders to approach such projects with the right framework, by looking at best practice examples and having the right methods to ensure repurposed buildings are not merely an echo of old, bad habits. As Al Shimmari points out: “Cities evolve, and we, as humans, change. Change is healthy, but we have to make sure it is toward the right direction. This is an investment, and we have to make sure this investment is going to the benefit of everyone, as well, with minimum loss and minimum negative impact on the environment, on humans and so on. Definitely, there will be faults; we learn from these faults. The greatest government and greatest cities in the world didn’t learn from only wins but also from the mistakes. We have to make sure we understand what’s happening around the world because these are lessons learned.”

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