Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Beyond Belief

It is firmly believed by a seeming majority of people that by some law of physics renovation of an existing structure is less expensive and cheaper than new construction. I don’t know how this meme got into the public consciousness but it is erroneous.

Were it true, you would see a whole lot less new construction in the world, but then, as I have been told the developer Illuminati care nothing for cost or profit and seek only to use their ill gotten money to destroy the pleasant and familiar to construct giant white elephants on the bodies of the poor and virtuous.

The reasons and justifications for renovation are many, and sometimes cost savings do enter into the picture. However, the limitations of the building layout and structure are far more important. The retention of a turn of the century fa├žade, something too expensive to duplicate, would be weighed with fact that all of your required functions may not fit, or may be greatly limited.

It is true that in some renovations you can, in the end be left with something better than you could have constructed from scratch. But there are always enormous trade offs in doing so. Some business types are better suited to this than others, condo and hotels, are more flexible, so long as the minimum room counts are accommodated, and they can generate the kind of revenue needed to pay off the renovation. Others are more difficult. Historic office buildings rarely are renovated as new office space. The income is too low, and those old floor plans are often narrow, limited by columns and make lousy office space compared with the newer competition.

Some time can be saved in renovation, but not as much as you might expect. A large building that can be demolished in a couple of weeks, could take six months or more to gut and remediate and prepare the shell for the new work, almost as long as erecting a new shell. Time savings usually come in the design portion, not the construction schedule, as production of plans can proceed while the gutting is underway.

And don’t assume I am disparaging renovation. I like renovation. I’d like more renovation, but I understand some of the complexity of the equation. But “Renovation is faster and cheaper” meme is about as intellectually sophisticated as the “tax cuts pay for themselves” meme and is just as ignorance of how complex the issue is.

This is not specifically about the damn VA/Charity hospital. I will delete any comment that assumes I am taking some kind of position on this issue. I make no comment on the worth/worthlessness of anyone or anything related to that issue in this post.

And, please, spare me the “buts”. I know it’s what you believe, and how it’s formed the cornerstone of your thinking on a whole host of issues, and how you feel the need to defend your intellect. You are not going to convince me to believe in the renovation fairy. Please read the following article which is quoted below.

My own opinion is that belief is the death of intelligence. As soon as one believes a doctrine of any sort, or assumes certitude, one stops thinking about that aspect of existence. The more certitude one assumes, the less there is left to think about, and a person sure of everything would never have any need to think about anything and might be considered clinically dead under current medical standards, where absence of brain activity is taken to mean that life has ended. RAW


Dave said...

I have to admit that, not really knowing anything about construction, architecture, or renovation, that I may have been guilty of holding this belief myself. That said, I'm not going to ask your position on the Charity rebuilding/renovation issue, but the fact that you brought it up makes me wonder if you are aware of any recent developments or decisions that have been made on that front that I haven't heard about. Is any progress being made one way or the other?

Puddinhead said...

Brought all the way down to the residential and small commercial level (in a former life I was a draftsman doing drawings for both), simply do one thing--ask a contractor for his per square foot pricing for new construction, and then as for the same for renovation. Then make a guess which one is harder and more costly for the builder. I had several contractors tell me they really didn't even like to give a price on renovation jobs unless work was so tight that they had to, because as they put it "once you open things up you never know what you're going to find".

Clay said...

With the way things run these days, it's surprising the number of times starting from scratch is more efficient, primarily because you get exactly what you want in terms of layout, services, etc. You need more skilled, more experienced laborers. You also don't have to pay for asbestos remediation ($$$) in new construction.

Let's suppose a totally new VA/Charity is cheaper. If you look at the details, though, you're not comparing apples to apples. There's probably enough steel and concrete in Big Charity to build two hospitals. There are some materials they used then that would either be prohibitively costly or unavailable today.

celcus said...

Clay, please note the disclaimer:

"This is not specifically about the damn VA/Charity hospital. I will delete any comment that assumes I am taking some kind of position on this issue. I make no comment on the worth/worthlessness of anyone or anything related to that issue in this post."

I'm not comparing anything.

How does the intrinsic value in materials in place factor in to this? Hardly. I find it wasteful, myself. Even LEED certification allows a pittance for renovation. Concrete is not that expensive and scrap steel is sent to China to be made into cheap goods to sell at Wal-Mart.

I would point out that in historic buildings these old and often superior materials often were installed using methods that are sub-standard today, or create a huge host of new problems when incorporated with modern construction (inadvertent vapor barriers and the resulting mold should come to mind). And everything wears out. Often you find years of use and wear and tear has taken a pretty hard toll on them, especially when placed next to a new material.

And again, the matching of the proposed function compared with the existing building is critical. A funeral home, an office building, and a hotel all have huge differences in the way spaces need to be laid out and what has to be accommodated to function properly.

mominem said...

Amen Brother.

The architectural features of old buildings cannot be duplicated at current construction prices and real estate values.

Old office buildings make good condos and hotel conversions because before air conditioning and fluorescent light every room needed access to exterior walls for air and natural light. Good condos and hotels require windows in every room. Because these buildings can be easily converted the buildings are also are able to maintain many of their existing architectural features.