Why renovate old buildings?

There’s a joke we tell about operating a historic hotel. “What’s the difference between an old hotel and a historic one? About 100 bucks a night.”

Joking aside, many communities with aging downtown buildings struggle with what to do as they look for ways to revitalize their central business districts.

It is understandable that many developers feel the best way to be successful is to continue to build new buildings, but recent data throughout the U.S. seems to support the idea that renovating and repurposing old buildings is also very successful.

The notion that purchasers and tenants only desire new buildings is just not accurate. What they want is quality and value in their buildings. And value is not the same as cost. When considering preserving an old building, especially one with historical significance, preservation is about value, not cost.

Renovating older buildings can have enormous economic, environmental, and historical value. Additionally, according to many architects and renovation experts, baby boomers, millennials and creative types all want interesting places to live and work in the inner city.

It’s true that renovating an old building can be risky. Challenges include structural deficiencies, inadequate stairwells, ADA obstacles, electrical and plumbing problems, and hazardous materials are just a few. That adds up to the biggest challenge; the cost of the renovation. Will the cost fit within a market-driven, pro-forma analysis for a developer?

So, do the benefits outweigh the costs? In many cases the answer is yes. Recent studies show that historic preservation is good for the local economy and positively impacts jobs, property values, tourism, and downtown revitalization. It’s even environmentally responsible.

It used to be said in the green movement that “the greenest building is the one that isn’t built.” Now it’s “the greenest building is the one that is already built.”

Building restoration is the ultimate act of sustainability. And it’s an environmentally responsible practice. Reusing existing buildings is essentially a recycling program. Energy is not used to demolish a building, landfills are not filled, and less building materials are created or transported. And, from a community standpoint, there is no additional cost for infrastructure. It’s already in place.

Even though renovating an old building makes economic and environmental sense, the greatest reason may still be simply a heart-felt “love of place.” Surely, saving our local heritage is a worthy enough factor for renovating an old building, especially in downtown. P reserving historic buildings is essential to understanding that heritage.

Renovating an old building can be successful, but it can also be costly. As in all development, it has its risks.

But the real hidden cost is in personal capital. It costs vision, creativity, risk-taking, and passion. It takes the ability to see past the current state of a building and imagine its potential.

I guess it takes people who can see the future.

Come see me. I’ll be in the lounge


Cecil Childress is general manager of the Blennerhassett Hotel and chairman of Downtown PKB.