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The art of smart repurposing

How strong a financial case is there for investing in buildings with an eye on repurposing? And how can technology usher in a new era of city planning? Hannah Jo Uy explores…

| | Jul 29, 2020 | 1:06 pm
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Dr Gerhard Schmitt

Without a doubt, repurposing of buildings is a smart and responsive thing to do, says Dr Gerhard Schmitt, Director, Singapore-ETH Centre and Professor at the Chair of Information Architecture, ETH Zurich. “It is smart, because it saves cost and time, and it is responsive, because it assigns a new function to existing architecture,” he explains, adding that as with any project, some buildings can be repurposed more effectively and more efficiently than others. “There is massive scope for improvement in the way cities the world over approach urban planning,” he points out. “Much of the oversight comes as a result of near sightedness and losing sight of the most important element in building design and redesign, which is the human factor.”

To ensure buildings are being repurposed in the most optimal way, Dr Schmitt urges stakeholders to reflect on the driving force behind the repurposing. “If it’s only to increase short-tern revenue, then all calculations will be economical in nature,” he says. “But if you look at the building’s impact on the atmosphere, the CO2, as well as other long-term aspects, then the calculations shift. The art of doing repurposing in the smart way is to know exactly what, in your context, is asked for.”

A proper approach is only possible following stronger collaboration among public-sector entities, Dr Schmitt says. “City planners or governments would know what is important for people to keep and what not to keep,” he says, adding that from a macro perspective, there are many things to consider when it comes to repurposing spaces, be it individual buildings or larger communities. “These considerations go beyond the structural integrity of the existing developments but also the importance it holds for the people and the communities,” he says. Providing an example, Dr Schmitt shares an instance where the Turkish government tried to repurpose a public square and garden into a shopping mall, leading to huge protests. “You can avoid that,” he says, “if you know what buildings are important to people. I think it’s important to have a tailored approach when it comes to any repurposing.”

To this end, Dr Schmitt believes that technology can play an even greater role in helping urban planners and consultants have a more holistic approach. One example, he says, is conducting online surveys or even implementing machine learning and artificial intelligence to identify which parts in the city people take most pictures of. “It can help people understand better which buildings are worth keeping and which are not,” he says.

For the structures that are worth keeping, Dr Schmitt points out that technology can also be further integrated to optimise the process. “Every year, technology is getting better to make repurposing the buildings easier, when it comes to the necessary installations and load for lighting, for air conditioning and for making it structurally safer,” he says. “The invasiveness of repurposing a building is going down with technology.”


For Dr Schmitt, the only way to ensure the quality of the repurposed building is to make buildings fit for repurposing in the first place. “There are very good primary structures that are spacious and have enough air and which can be repurposed as lofts of mega spaces,” he says. “It’s about thinking of what lies ahead and what is needed in the future. This makes a lot of sense, and architects should put that in the design brief that a structure should consider being repurposed for environmentally friendly use afterwards and that can be integrated in the structure’s design.”

Dr Schmitt says this underscores the importance of getting the building right in the initial stages, adding that there are important and meaningful considerations that must be made to get a building right for the next 100 or 150 years in this regard.

First, he says, gravity will never change; therefore, ensuring the structural integrity over a long period of time is essential. “Secondly, although difficult to estimate for decades into the future, the ownership model of the structure is essential,” he says. “Lifecycle cost should take preference over low first cost.” Lastly, Dr Schmitt points out that the building materials must be such that they can easily become part of the circular or, even better, the regenerative economy.

While developing buildings in a way that can take into account future repurposing is an ideal approach, the additional cost, in terms of manhours and design changes, may serve as a challenge, Dr Schmitt says. “No one wants to spend 5-10% more, just because there might be different use for the building in the future,” he says. “But there is a switching and tipping point.”

Dr Schmitt maintains that there is a financial model that has to be greatly understood by stakeholders. For the developers, he points out, investing in ensuring buildings can be repurposed down the line means being able to easily adapt to a new range of tenants. Local government municipalities should also look at, and encourage, building with an eye on repurposing, to ensure livability of the city 20-30 years down the line, he adds. “It is totally dependent on city government,” Dr Schmitt says. “If they only go for low cost and high revenue, it’s not an issue. If their time horizon is longer than five or 10 years, then they can arrive at an economic model and there can be a lot of incentives to build with an eye towards repurposing.”

As a planner and urban designer, Dr Schmitt believes long-term livability of a city is key to its success. “You always have to think, what comes after the shopping mall,” he says. “Maybe, the shopping is going to be less prevalent in the future, so it’s about what makes a city more livable even after present use.”

Dr Schmitt adds that there are many lessons that can be gained from cities that faced challenges from not planning. In Germany, he says, all cities were dependent on steel. “They didn’t think they would ever change, and cities were suffering terribly because of all of this,” he says. Similarly, in the US, the facilities for coal mining and car industry affected the communities that were largely dependent on them, “So, for many countries, such as the UAE that have the means to do so, they must invest more in planning with the main purpose of future livability to ensure the construction of the buildings can be reused more easily.”

In view of this, Dr Schmitt says it is imperative for developers and local government units to expand the time perspective beyond the next few years. “Even if some people don’t see the value of thinking long-term, strategic bodies, such as the city government, have to think about it or risk being thrown around by trends.” He adds that this can have long-term commercial impact in the event cities are solely dependent on business of particular commercial infrastructure, and further aggravates losses that may have been incurred for unexpected economic challenges, such as those following Covid-19. “In that case, the additional percentage of investment to make buildings future-proof makes financial sense,” he says.

Dr Schmitt adds that the city government and developers can work with scientists and research institutes to look into different kinds of simulations and future productions than is being used, in order to really usher a shift in city and building plans. “Today, financial calculations are based on past models,” he says, “but that means you perpetuate the situation as it is. If you use new technology, new ways of simulation and new ways of predicting the future five to 10 years ahead, it will change your perspective.” In this way, Dr Schmitt says, one can showcase how the use of new technology and data, while respecting the existing building and environment, can lead to much better revenue for whoever owns the buildings.



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