renovation alchemy

10 October 2012

It seems nowadays my role as an architect is more of an alchemist. Most or all of my work involves some type of renovation, so I know the issues, especially in small projects. It takes a bit of courage, a tough of ingenuity, a lump of creativity and much patience to make these projects work. Getting gold out of common buildings doesn’t come easy.

Times are tough and yes things appear expensive, especially when it comes to renovating old buildings. If you are planning a renovation project you should probably ask yourself a few difficult questions prior to moving forward with your plans. Many people have gotten involved in a project without professional help and find themselves in deeper than they planned. If they do finally hire a professional, she has to work magic to make it happen.

If you are considering buying a building with a goal to renovate it for commercial reasons, ask yourself will it really work in THIS building? In other words how much has to change about this building to make it work for your business? Be honest with yourself. Often what happens is someone buys a building that was originally some type of residential structure with intentions to convert it into a commercial use only to find disappointment when it is a real challenge or impossible without spending a small fortune. Therefore, a follow-up question is how much do I have to add or change to make this work. For example if you are planning a restaurant does the building you are considering have any of the equipment or will it need all new kitchen and/or mechanical equipment? What about dining room space or bathrooms? Will it meet current codes?

Another really important question is does the building (as it stands) reflect the image you have or want for your business? How far are you willing to go to change it to meet that image? Remember what others think of your business is more important than what you think of your business. This is where you need an architect…and in some cases an alchemist. This is especially true if you are selling a product or even food. You might think it shallow as someone judges your business based on the exterior appearance of your building. But in reality aren’t you really looking to find a good way to sell whatever it is you sell? Why judge the judge?

If you’re not sure what I mean by that comment, consider the enormous amount of money spent on major retail chains for their image. Look at any major franchise or well-known brand. That brand costs money to be that successful. You’re thinking “I don’t have that kind of budget” and “my architect is over-designing my project beyond my budget.” Be honest with yourself, your project may not be over-designed it might be under funded. There is room for all levels of budgets within the boundaries of good design; however it still must be realistic. Again this is another reason for hiring a design professional like an architect because they can work within your budget and still come up with something creative and consistent with your brand. You’ll need to be flexible

Most of all, don’t compare yourself with the neighboring businesses, they probably did not do it right. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard “how come <fill in the blank> didn’t have to do all of this code stuff? Besides answering “I don’t know”, it is likely that they got away with it. Later, they may suffer from that poor or hasty decision with things such as unsafe conditions, higher operating costs, or larger future maintenance costs. I believe just like the phrase nice guys finish last, people who do it correctly pay the least in the long run. Maybe I’m just naive or idealistic.

Ask yourself am I in the correct location? Did you want to be in an urban location? Did you prefer a suburban strip mall? In other words are there other businesses like yours near your location? Do you want other businesses like yours nearby? For as much as I am advocate to renovate before building new it is something that must be considered very carefully. If a downtown urban setting is your best location for your business then you will probably have to invest in the renovation process because you’ll be surrounded with older existing buildings. This is a different type of setting than a suburban setting with most likely different renovation costs and complexity. When comparing renovation to new construction keep this in mind, the structure itself probably only accounts for 30 to 40 percent of the cost of building. With new interior finishes, a new partition layout and new mechanical and electrical systems (let alone structural repairs and major code upgrades) the cost of your renovation project will start to come close to that of new construction. In some cases it might even surpass new construction. That shouldn’t scare you away from renovation; it is just part of the equation. Some people innocently believe that renovation should be pretty cheap since there’s already a building there. However they are probably not looking at it analytically, but merely believing what they want to believe.

One last thing as you select an architect, make sure they have experience with the renovation projects. They should have knowledge of the codes and what it takes to renovate a building versus new construction. Ask to see some of their work and discuss the challenges those projects had and how they overcame them. They might not reveal their secrets, but it will start to confirm your choice of whether you want to hire them or not.

  • Will this building work for my business?
  • How much do I have to change it?
  • Does it or will it reflect my brand or image?
  • Is it in a good location?
  • Who is a good architect to help me get there and answer these questions?

Maybe that last question should be the first question. What do you think?

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8 Responses to “renovation alchemy”


  1. “Your project may just be under-funded….” Hahaha!

    Awesome treatise on why an experienced professional should be involved from the get go!

  2. Robert Ross Says:

    Having a strong background in renovation, most people forget that one of the first things that has to happen is the removal of substandard work done by the previous owner! Good design doesn’t have to come at premium construction cost if the investment in design is made up front!

  3. Ted Rusnak Says:

    Consider this, a forum with 3 or 4 Architects on stage and an audience of students and other interested parties listening to us discuss renovations. I for one could do an hour long talk….as could everyone else up there with me….and none of us would repeat anyone else. Renovations are both simple (on the surface) and one of the most complex things we are hired to do.
    But then again I do love the results. .

  4. Nung Says:

    Residential to restaurant ? Well, the first thing to check is zoning/planning and the next thing is Health Department and also verify if there is gas line, power, grease interceptor. You need to do all these before drawing a line.


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