Rehabilitating Historic Buildings
Updating, repurposing, and rehabilitating historic buildings
This page will assist you in the process involved in updating, repurposing, and rehabilitating historic buildings and provides a roadmap for development code and historic design guidelines and a range of local and national funding opportunities.
Caring about and investing in old buildings
Old buildings support small business and vibrant community
The 2014 Older, Smaller, Better report from Preservation Green Lab found that older buildings supported more people and businesses than new buildings and encouraged the growth of new independently owned businesses through more affordable and flexible spaces. The smaller lots and buildings also allow for greater building and business ownership diversity. (Older, Smaller, Better, Preservation Green Lab)
- The 2014 Older, Smaller, Better report from Preservation Green Lab found that districts with smaller, older buildings supported more people, businesses, jobs, and creative opportunities per square foot than areas with new buildings.
- Older business districts allowed for more affordable, flexible spaces for new businesses to flourish. These businesses were more likely to be independently owned, too. (Older, Smaller, Better, Preservation Green Lab)
- Old buildings provide a pathway for entrepreneurs to open new businesses and succeed. In addition, smaller lots with diverse ownership help to provide more opportunities for building ownership as well as other forms of entrepreneurship.
Rehab projects create more jobs than new construction
Researchers have found that $1 million invested in historic rehabilitation produces more jobs, income and state and local taxes than $1 million invested in new construction, highway construction, machinery manufacturing, agriculture or telecommunications. (Brown, “The Economic Power of Preservation”)
- In a typical rehab project, 70% of costs are associated with labor. (Rypkema, Economics of Historic Preservation)
- New construction creates 40 jobs per $1 million dollars spent on construction as compared with historic rehabilitation, which creates 43 to 49 jobs per $1 million. (Rypkema, Economics of Historic Preservation)
- Researchers have found that $1 million invested in historic rehabilitation produces more jobs, income and state and local taxes than $1 million invested in new construction, highway construction, machinery manufacturing, agriculture or telecommunications. (Brown, “The Economic Power of Preservation”)
Old buildings are more energy efficient than you may think
Most of a building's total energy use occurs during its construction through transportation and manufacturing; this embodied energy use can result in a high carbon debt for new buildings. Even in new energy-efficient buildings, it can take up to 80 years to overcome the climate impacts created by their construction. While many older buildings are naturally "green by design," Their thick walls, use of daylight, repairable windows and parts, deep eaves, and porches are part of an efficient and thoughtful design system that helps keep buildings cool in the summer and warm in the winter. (Meeks, The Past and Future City)
- It can take up to 80 years for a new energy efficient building to overcome the climate impacts created by its construction, or to pay off its “carbon debt.” (Greenest Building Report, Preservation Green Lab)
- Pre-1970s buildings are naturally energy efficient, or “green by design.” Their thick walls, use of daylight, repairable windows and parts, deep eaves and porches are part of an efficient and thoughtful design system that helps keep buildings cool in the summer and warm in the winter. (Meeks, The Past and Future City)
- Approximately 50% of a building’s total energy use happens during its creation--the energy associated with the construction of the building itself. Extracting and manufacturing new materials, transporting them to the site, and putting them together is called embodied energy. Measurements of new building efficiency primarily focus on the use of the building, which is called operational energy. Operational energy does not factor into embodied energy. By focusing on improving energy efficiency of existing buildings, we can conserve both embodied and operational energy.
Neglecting and demolishing old buildings creates waste
In 2018, the U.S. generated 600 million tons of construction and demolition waste. This is twice the amount of municipal solid waste (household garbage); about 90% of those 600 million tons come from demolition. This is also more than a 400% increase in construction and demolition waste from 1990. (Environmental Protection Agency). Demolition also harms sustainability efforts, as the average waste in demolishing a 3,000 square foot building is equivalent to the benefit of recycling 1,344,000 aluminum cans. (Rypkema, Economics, Sustainability, and Historic Preservation) In comparison, materials from older buildings are reusable and repairable and often much higher quality than newly manufactured ones.
- Demolishing an average 3,000 square foot building and landfilling all its materials wipes out the environmental benefit of recycling about 1,344,000 aluminum cans. (Rypkema, Economics, Sustainability and Historic Preservation) This equates to 448 aluminum cans per square foot of building.
- In a typical demolition project in the Twin Cities, about 85% of demolished materials could be reused or recycled. (Hennepin County)
- Materials from older buildings are not only reusable and repairable; they’re often much higher quality than newly manufactured ones. For example, old growth wood (lumber that grew slowly and naturally in virgin forests over the course of 100s of years) is a stronger, more rot resistant, termite resistant product than mass manufactured lumber from tree farms (the stuff you’d find at big box stores).
- Studies by the firm Place Economics show that demolishing just a modest sized house generates 62.5 tons of household waste — the average person would need 79.5 years to produce that same amount of waste.
- In 2018, U.S. generated 600 million tons of construction and demolition waste. This is twice the amount of municipal solid waste (household garbage), and about 90% of those 600 million tons comes from demolition. This is also more than a 400% increase in construction and demolition waste from 1990. (Environmental Protection Agency)
- Ultimately rehabilitation supports sustainability and economic development while maintaining the community's character and diverse heritage for the benefit of future generations.
Things to consider
Old buildings can find new uses
It’s important to keep in mind that your building already has character and that it’s important to follow the abiding guidelines for changing or maintaining the design, style, and functionality. However, old buildings can find new uses far from their original purpose. Just think about the number of breweries and apartments in old warehouses or industrial spaces!
It’s ok to be incremental
Sometimes it’s not financially feasible to make all the updates you want to at once. By creating a plan to address time-sensitive issues that impact the structure of your building, you can plan to update a bit at a time.
How do I begin?
Create a maintenance plan
A maintenance plan is a document that outlines work that will need to be done to maintain a building in a proactive manner. Determine what is an immediate need versus a future goal. If maintenance planning is new to you, one place to learn more is online at the National Park Service Technical Preservation Services. Rethos also has a guide on drafting a maintenance plan.
Learn the basics of your building
- When was it built?
- What architectural style does it feature?
- What structural needs does it have?
- How is it zoned?
You can find out more information from the Northfield Planning and Zoning Office and the Northfield Historical Society.
Old buildings are often looked to as being inaccessible. That’s not always the case! While you may not be able to move a load bearing wall to create a bathroom that’s sized for accessibility, there are many steps you can take to make sure your space is both functional and welcoming for all.
Know the design requirements
Get to know what’s required of you as a building owner by familiarizing yourself with Northfield’s Downtown Preservation Design Guidelines. These tools will help you understand which processes you’re required to follow.
Is your building listed on the National Register of Historic Places, part of an historic district or locally designated?
For local Information:
- Northfield Community Development Office
- Northfield Heritage Preservation Commission
Begin conversations early
By connecting with staff (when possible, some federal programs it isn’t) you’re more likely to have all the information you’ll need prior to turning in any applications.
Know the parameters of the fund you’re seeking
Have complete information ready ahead of time.
Do your research
Work with an architect, contractor, or designer to create renderings of plans and get cost estimates to go along with those designs. Have as much researched and planned as you can prior to any application.
Grants are typically time sensitive, and require applicants to follow strict application procedures. Local funding tends to happen as projects come up, but take time to move through the approval and inspection process.
Talk to successful applicants when possible!
Connecting with building owners who have successfully completed a project or taken advantage of funding opportunities you’re interested in can help you prepare for your application.
Staff are available to assist and connect you with the resources you need to complete a successful application.