• Home Remodeling Ideas: To renovate or build new?

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    Brown, Lindquist, Fenuccio & Raber Architects, Inc.
    Brown Lindquist Fennuccio & Raber Architects, Inc. is a diversified architectural practice located in historic Yarmouthport, Massachusetts.
    Brown, Lindquist, Fenuccio & Raber Architects, Inc.

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    By Richard Fenuccio


    One of the more challenging situations a buyer or owner of residential or commercial property faces is the decision to renovate or raze and rebuild their existing building. Does the buyer/owner improve or add-on to the current building to meet their needs, or is it more efficient and economical to raze the current structure and start with a new building on a clean site?


    One of the earliest issues is almost always the cost-benefit comparison, but there are many other considerations which often come in to play as well, and the answer is rarely black & white.

    Here are 10 key criteria and a series of questions which we’ve identified at Brown, Lindquist, Fenuccio & Raber Architects, Inc. to help guide the buyer/owner through the decision making process, based on several decades of hands on experience with this challenging question. Remember that zoning regulations and building codes vary from town to town and every renovation/new build decision is unique.

    Check for Zoning Conformance or Non-Conformance of the current site and/or building(s).

    Zoning laws continually change and generally become more restrictive over time. For example, your property may currently have three buildings with a total lot coverage of 5,000 sq. ft., but with changes in zoning regulations the property might only support, “as of right,” a total of 3,000 sq. ft. of lot coverage if one started with the same empty parcel today.

    • Does it make more sense to maintain or walk away from a “Pre-Existing Non-Conforming” situation?
    • What can the lot support in terms of regulatory compliance?
    • What are the limitations, e.g. allowable uses, maximum lot coverage, zoning set-backs, support for wastewater treatment, etc.?
    • Where is the building located with respect to natural resources, e.g. wetlands, coastal dunes, ponds, etc.?

    Review the flood elevation requirements (V vs. A zones) for the property to see if low dollar thresholds trigger compliance when making “Substantial Improvements.”

    As many people have heard, the new Federal Flood maps will be released in June 2014 and it may be more difficult to significantly renovate existing structures that are built below the base flood elevation. The cost of renovations should be compared to the current value of the structure and building code thresholds. In some cases, demolishing the structure and rebuilding may be a better option than lifting a sub-standard building up to the required new base flood elevation.

    • What are the anticipated costs of renovation compared to value and minimum building code thresholds?
    • If the renovation costs exceed the thresholds under “Substantial Improvements”, does it make more sense to lift and renovate or raze and replace?

    Examine the level of deterioration of the building

    In the 1986 movie “The Money Pit,” Tom Hanks and Shelley Long struggle to repair a hopelessly dilapidated house. While judging if a building is in good shape seems to be deceptively easy, the movie teaches an important lesson about the need for due diligence when examining a property.

    • Is the foundation or framing substantially substandard?
    • Is the building insulated or can its thermal envelope be reasonably upgraded for better energy performance?
    • Are the interior finishes compromised?
    • Can the building be made to fit the new purpose?
    • Will the building support a reasonable level of renovation dollars without becoming a money pit?

    Determine if the building is in reasonable structural condition and whether it will need to be upgraded to achieve code compliance under the new IEBC code.

    When a building is renovated, it may, depending on the scope of anticipated work, need to meet specific requirements of the current Building Code, which generally has higher standards than the original code when the building was constructed. This includes more stringent structural requirements that may require reinforcing floors, walls and anchorage of the building to the foundation, as well as taking into consideration wind loading factors, seismic measures, etc.

    • Does the structure meet the current building code?
    • Are the planned alterations significant enough to require wholesale structural upgrades?
    • Does the building meet the structural requirements to support an expansion?

    Consider the extent of required spatial changes or expansion relative to current layout and ability to expand the basic structure.

    One of the most common motivators for embarking upon a renovation or re-building process is a change of space needs. For commercial buildings, this could be the need for additional staff or work spaces to accommodate an expanding business, or in the case of a homeowner, an expanding or changing family situation.

    In either case, the current building design and layout must be carefully evaluated to determine if the extent of the anticipated spatial changes “tips the scale” and makes a demolition / rebuild the more sensible approach; or conversely does a renovation approach, in and of itself, achieve the overall design goals.

    • Does the current building have enough room to meet the owner’s needs through expansion or reconfiguring of the existing space?
    • Is it more cost effective to remove and rebuild or renovate the existing building to achieve a specific end result?

    Examine the condition of the MEP/FP systems (mechanical, electrical, plumbing and fire protection) to determine if upgrades are required.

    The MEP/FP systems are integrated into the fabric of the building and can be costly to upgrade or replace. The useful life of certain elements of an HVAC system, for example, is approximately 20 to 25 years.

    • Do the MEP/FP systems meet current Codes?
    • Do they have enough capacity for the renovated or expanded building?
    • In terms of efficiency and utility utilization, is repair or replacement the more prudent course or would complete replacement yield a more energy-efficient structure in the long term?

    Determine the extent of disruption or shut-down that the construction will cause to the existing business or homeowner.

    Sometimes a business cannot simply close its doors during construction because of risk of losing customers, or a homeowner may not have off-site relocation options for a prolonged construction period.

    How important is it that the business or residence continue to be operational during construction?
    What’s the price of the inconvenience, disruption and mess associated with renovation?
    Can the business or owner be temporarily relocated during renovation or new construction?

    Review the extent of required handicapped accessibility measures (e.g. site access from the parking lot, elevators, lifts, etc.)

    Upgrading older, non-conforming commercial buildings to make them handicapped accessible can be especially challenging. Relatively low dollar thresholds can make these measures an integral part of even a modest commercial renovation.

    • Is the current structure handicapped accessible?
    • What changes are necessary to make the current site and building compliant?
    • Is it possible to make the changes at a reasonable cost in the existing building?

    Is the structure located within a dedicated local or national historic district?

    Local and national historic districts have their own unique requirements. A complete demolition may be very difficult to obtain from local regulatory boards, or a demolition request can be met with a very long demolition delay condition.

    • What are the local/national historic guidelines that will apply when renovating a building while maintaining its historic integrity?
    • What is the process for obtaining approval to demolish an historic structure that is determined to be deficient or in poor condition?
    • What are the public relations ramifications of demolition versus renovation of a locally treasured building?

    Identify emotional connections – family or community – to the property or building

    One of the hardest factors to weigh and understand is the sense of connection individuals, or the community-at-large, have with a building through personal experience and memories. When there is little connection this may not be a factor. However, when there is a strong connection, renovation may be just the right thing to do for maintaining a sense of community even if a “tear-down” makes better sense overall.

    • What emotional connections are there to the building? By whom?
    • Is there special funding possibly available to preserve an existing building instead of razing?
    • What negative consequences might arise if a demolition proposal is put forward?
    • Conversely, what positive community relations could develop if a preserve/renovate option is pursued?

    As you can see from the many questions we’ve shared, the decision making process to renovate, or raze and rebuild, an existing building is seldom a simple “Yes/No” solution. The criteria we’ve listed here are just a sampling of the many factors that one should take into consideration when confronted with the prospect of a significant “renovation.” Each building or property presents its own unique set of challenges and issues that require thoughtful and knowledgeable analysis.

    Richard P. Fenuccio is the President of Brown Lindquist Fenuccio & Raber Architects, Inc. in Yarmouthport, MA. He can be reached at rick@capearchitects.com or 508-362-8382.

    November 25, 2013