Retrofitting: five key challenges

Etienne Sharp is an associate director at design and architecture practice MoreySmith 

Repurposing and repositioning old-stock buildings to create business headquarters and office workspaces is a process that presents a unique set of challenges for developers and architects alike. It requires a delicate balance between preserving historic charm and incorporating modern functionality. 

“The challenge of retaining historic features while reviving old buildings requires a delicate touch”

The commitment to retrofitting old buildings is a testament to the construction industry’s capacity for innovation and collaboration.

By embracing adaptable and creative solutions, engaging in early workshops and ensuring access to comprehensive information, contractors can navigate the challenges these projects bring.

Below are five key considerations for contractors tasked with retrofitting buildings. 

Landlord approval

Securing landlord and tenant approval (LTA) is often the first hurdle to overcome. The approval process typically involves numerous decision-makers, including property managers and building owners, and navigating this can be a time-consuming process.

Close collaboration with architects to develop design schemes that preserve heritage features, while meeting modern standards, enables contractors to present compelling proposals for the LTA.

Early engagement with the landlord is fundamental to any retrofitting project. For example, when redesigning Henrietta House, we worked closely with the tenant, CBRE, and the landlord, Lazari Investments, to ensure that all parties were involved in the decision-making and the overall vision for the project. This facilitates a seamless process in securing LTA at the outset.

Meeting environmental, social and governance standards

Developers are increasingly concerned with the environmental impact of construction works, and require that contractors and architects adhere to the latest sustainability standards. When targeting certifications such as BREEAM and WELL, every aspect of the construction process must be considered.

Retrofitting older spaces supports this overall ambition, as it is inherently better for the environment due to the carbon saved, compared with building new. However, a toolbox of innovative solutions is required to ensure that sustainability is at the forefront of each decision in the process.

By conducting workshops with contractors, architects and specialists, a clear roadmap for incorporating energy-efficient technologies, materials and systems can be devised. This is also an opportunity to set clearly defined targets so that all parties are working toward the same goals throughout the project.

Such an approach saw Henrietta House achieve BREEAM Excellent and WELL Platinum certification, in part due to the innovative off-site construction techniques deployed. Strategic updates to the building’s existing plant services further futureproofed the energy and water efficiency.

Considering fire-safety compliance

Fire safety is another challenge for contractors to navigate. When retrofitting, any changes to the building’s structure or systems may affect fire-safety compliance and other legal requirements.

Integrating modern fire-safety measures and cladding into historical structures without compromising their aesthetic appeal is something architects and designers can support at the design stage. This necessitates meticulous planning and a comprehensive understanding of fire-safety regulations, which have evolved significantly in the past five years.

Ensuring accuracy

Accurate survey information forms the bedrock of any retrofitting project, as inadequate or incomplete data may lead to costly delays and design reworks. For contractors, discoverables found on site, such as a redundant lift shaft or beams that are lower than expected, can cause significant setbacks.

One new way that contractors and designers are making sure survey information is accurate is by using Cloud Survey. This new technology captures accurate existing building data, as well as digital 2D and 3D maps of each level of the building, ensuring that datums are correct and discoverables are identified upfront.

Integrating old and new

Once new technology has found any unexpected features, clever design can actually become a focal point for the refurbishment. 

In any retrofitting project, the challenge of retaining historic features while reviving old buildings requires a delicate touch.

This approach not only champions environmental preservation, it also breathes new life into the tapestry of old-stock buildings, future-proofing spaces for generations to come.

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