How viable is sustainability for downtowns and design budgets?  

The focus today on adaptive reuse as a strategy for decarbonization is still subject to the economics of running an architecture firm and contingent on market forces and their players like developers, investors, owners, and operators. Commonwealth Architects Principal Lee Shadbolt, AIA, and Principal Emeritus Robert Burns, AIA, say that the value proposition of adapting an old building for new uses remains strong for their clients who are “bottom-line oriented,” but in approaching the question of embodied and operational carbon, they say, “you have to think about the quality of the existing building stock that’s left, which is different across Virginia. There’s not a single solution.”

At this point, and considering the digital tools to evaluate existing building stock, how would you say adaptive reuse has changed over the last decade

Lee Shadbolt: The adaptive reuse projects that were near the central business district in any town and any city—if they were a good project, they were probably already done about 10 years ago. The good projects downtown are done. Now we’re seeing another set of buildings coming up that have reached their 50-year threshold for historic tax credits, and they’re not old like we think of as historic architecture—they’re Modern architecture. They present another set of rules, especially for our firm, for another set of different materials. 

How are you talking to clients about the material realities—meaning the literal performance of materials—of projects that are 50 years old versus 100 years old, say?

Robert Burns: A lot of our clients tend to be bottom-line folks—especially if they’re developers. In terms of materials, it’s the same discussion for those younger buildings as it is for older ones—what can we do to extend the life of certain materials? When is it more cost effective to replace something? What do you replace it with? In some of our historic work where we are inserting contemporary fabric, we make it clear what’s new and what’s historic. 

Lee: It really depends on the situation. We have one job now where we’re looking to convert an office tower into a hotel. The hotel chain came back and said they wanted to replace the old, single-pane windows. We said we can’t do that—they are the “contributing factors” and historic characteristics. We have another job with a curtain wall, which is in good shape, and we’re just going to add another pane of glass. There’s a third case, which was an old warehouse—a manufacturing plant for tobacco—and the windows had been replaced with glass blocks 30 years ago. So, we went in and put back steel-sash windows, which were the original windows before the glass blocks.

How does Commonwealth Architects see trends unfolding across Virginia for existing buildings, especially considering the pressures of climate change in such an ecologically diverse state?

Lee: We’ve seen, in the Tidewater region, the demolishing of a lot of historic buildings rather than adaptively using them. Petersburg has the best building stock in the state, but building new things there isn’t economically viable. Richmond? If there was low-hanging fruit in the past, in terms of readily and easily renovating or restoring an old building, it’s been done. Danville, Lynchburg, and so on—all different stories—but it’s been done there and there’s not a lot left to work with and the days when you could buy an old warehouse for $25 a square foot and convert it are gone.

Robert: Our cost-conscious clients seem to be a lot more interested in the energy efficiency of their buildings than they used to be, especially since a lot of the costs of certification for LEED and others have come down. Before the rise of a lot of the energy efficiency focus, they could care less—it was always about first-cost—but we are seeing a lot more owner-operators now, too, who are a lot more interest in energy efficiency. 

Lee: We always ask a question of our owner-operators about their future tenants about how they think the upfront energy upgrades would cost them in five years, and then they always discover that it’s only a few more dollars a month. So, that’s satisfying to make that argument early and succeed. It sets the tone for the whole project. 

Robert: As the demographic of downtown residents has trended younger and younger, I find that they’re interested in the greenness of a building. Richmond is talking now about doing away with required parking for downtown condominiums and apartments, primarily because their residents don’t drive cars. Now, that can be argued in a lot of ways, but it’s undeniable that the people who move downtown now are interested in sustainable design. Developers are smart and if they know that, they’ll start to leverage it. 

Lee: We’re getting closer—and the threshold is lower to get over now to send a message that sustainability is viable. With multi-family, you’re getting younger folks, but you’re getting empty-nester baby boomers, too. I was recently in a seminar when someone on the panel said, “The thing you can do to live longer is to be around people and be engaged.” That’s the opposite of moving to a golf course community or moving to the mountains away from people. 

This interview has been edited for clarity and length. 

William Richards is a writer and the Editorial Director of Team Three, an editorial and creative consultancy based in Washington, DC.