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Renovate or build new: How to resolve the eternal question

Deciding whether renovation is more cost effective than new construction comes down to a few key questions.

May 19, 2015 |
Renovate or build new: How to resolve the eternal question

Prep spaces in Niagara County Community College’s Niagara Falls Culinary Institute provide future chefs with experience needed to operate foodservice venues. The institute is housed in a converted shopping mall. Photo: Tim Wilkes Photography

With capital budgets strained, renovation may be an increasingly attractive money-saving option for many college and universities.

Deciding whether renovation is more cost effective than new construction comes down to a few key questions:
• Can the existing structure support the program?
• Is the structure still sound?

• Is hazardous materials abatement needed?
• Will current occupants have to be relocated during construction? If so, what are the options?

Tom Chung, AIA, LEED BD+C, says it is worth spending extra time to do a thorough investigation of structural issues and infrastructure. “University officials understand this if they have been burned on a previous rehab project,” says Chung, a Principal with Leers Weinzapfel Associates Architects.

Unanticipated asbestos abatement can be a budget buster. Occupant relocation costs can be onerous if the college has to rent an off-campus facility. “You could spend $1 million or more to relocate for two years of construction time,” he says.

Niagara County Community College ran into an asbestos abatement problem in renovating the Rainbow Centre Mall in downtown Niagara Falls, N.Y. Originally constructed in the 1970s as a parking garage, the property fell into disuse and was donated to the college. The structure was a mess, says Peter C. McCarthy, LEED AP, Project Designer with CannonDesign. “It was leaking badly and had mold,” he says.

But the precast concrete structural components were still sound, and the design firm was able to devise plumbing and HVAC systems to fit the structural bones so that only minimal structural alterations were needed. A total gut rehab turned the building into the Niagara Falls Culinary Institute, which has since become a hot downtown destination for foodies, with two restaurants, a pastry shop, a wine shop, and a food-themed bookstore.

If all else fails, try turning to targeted grants. Niagara County CC used a $270,000 New York State Energy Research and Development Authority incentive grant to offset the cost of energy-efficiency measures, notably variable-speed kitchen exhaust hoods controlled by smoke sensors. In 2013, the school saved $38,000 in energy costs from its above-code systems and features.

The lesson: Building Teams would do well to help their college and university clients find grants and incentive programs to achieve best value on energy efficiency.

Learn more about higher education development trends in BD+C's Special Report, “How your firm can help struggling colleges and universities meet their building project goals.”

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