Outdoor seating next to brick wall

Three Mistakes
with Adaptive Reuse

Adaptive-reuse projects have the potential for significant returns as well as positive support…

The industrial revolution of the 19th century, coupled with the commercial building boom of the 20th century, created an abundance of large, masonry buildings. From sprawling brick factories to sleek stone skyscrapers, this commercial architecture had definitive purposes for their time and place. As society shifted from railroads to interstates, from boardrooms to chatrooms, many of these buildings lost their relevance.

It’s inevitable that most, if not all, structures will age and at some point, outgrow their original functions. With changes in technology and lifestyle, construction and design must be updated–leaving older structures in the wake of change. Those sensitive to history may prefer to restore older structures to their former glory, but costs, or changing societal preferences, often make this plan unrealistic. An alternative concept is “adaptive reuse”—a process of retrofitting old buildings for new uses.

The hospitality industry has capitalized on this trend as more and more of America’s commercial buildings are reincarnated as boutique lodging and dining destinations. Such projects have the potential for significant returns as well as positive support from local communities, but require more tenacity than traditional development projects. To succeed, hoteliers must steer clear of three common mistakes made in adaptive-reuse projects.

Don’t restore and forget to reuse
Adaptive reuse is not the same as restoration. While the latter involves restoring a building to its original state, adaptive reuse truly changes the intent of a structure to meet a new purpose. For hoteliers, this means understanding what key adaptations must be made to ready the structure for guest and staff use. Hoteliers must be strategic in determining what attributes are worth restoring and what areas must change to ensure productive operations. Guests will admire the exposed brick and floor to ceiling windows but will be less thrilled about having to share their room’s one electrical outlet. Cozy alcoves and hallways may add to the mood and ambiance, but they could frustrate room attendants who must park their cart yards away from a guest room.

For most historic properties, the construction materials, the form and style of the property, the principal elevations, the major architectural or landscape features, and the principal public spaces constitute some of the elements that should be preserved. Every effort should be made to minimize damage to the materials and the features that convey a property’s historical significance. Very small or highly significant properties that have never been altered may be extremely difficult to modify. Secondary spaces, finishes and attributes that may be less important to the historic character should also be identified. These may generally be altered for operational efficiencies without jeopardizing the historical significance of a property. Nonsignificant spaces, secondary pathways, later additions, previously altered areas, back-of-house spaces, and service areas can usually be modified without threatening or destroying a property’s historical significance.

Don’t leave compliance for last 
From preservation laws to accessibility requirements, hoteliers must stay vigilant of the legal, political and economic factors that affect the project. Preservation laws and regulations exist at the state and federal level, and failure to comply with them will jeopardize the project. Hoteliers should take time to seek counsel from historic architects, try to source original materials, and research your state’s permitting process. Equally important is building relationships with local officials that are responsible for conducting the reviews and processing permitting requests.

Accessibility is another important component hoteliers must consider. Buildings constructed prior the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990 often require retrofitting to bring the structure into compliance. For many commercial properties in urban settings, accessibility has not been a problem because these buildings were designed for easy pedestrian access. However, there are many recessed entries where the barrier to design is not the sidewalk but the area beside the door. An accessible door must have an eighteen-inch-wide area adjacent to the door handle to provide maneuvering room for someone in a wheelchair. When this space does not exist, which is common with recessed entrances, one alternative is the installation of automatic door openers. This is often less expensive than remodeling the original storefront and meets the accessibility requirements of federal and state statutes. Decisions like these that impact guest arrival and queuing should be determined early in the hotel’s development process.

Don’t mimic historic design, evolve it 
Adaptive-reuse hotels naturally offer what all new hotels are desperate to achieve: authenticity. These hotels have the chance to inherit the cultural significance of the structure’s past. However, to keep that authenticity intact, hoteliers must find a way to harmonize original attributes with new ones and to adapt them in a way that feels cohesive but not contrived. This is done by letting new work be recognizable as contemporary rather than a poor imitation of the original historic style of the building.

The adaptive reuse of a historic building should have minimal impact on the cultural significance of the building and its setting. Developers should gain an understanding of the building’s heritage and then pursue development that is sympathetic to the building to give it a new purpose. Adaptive reuse is self-defeating if it fails to protect the building’s heritage values, unless of course that heritage is something that should not be perpetuated. The most successful adaptive-reuse projects are those that best respect and retain a building’s heritage, and adds a contemporary layer that provides value for the future.