Feasibility of Reuse

by Don Friedman on September 7, 2016


Not one of our projects. Apparently, also not capable of standing under its own weight.

Simply put, a basic tenet of our practice that a building capable of standing under its own weight is capable of being repaired for reuse. There are of course exceptions to this rule, as there are to any general rule, but that does not change its meaning. We approach existing structures with the assumption that they have some structural value, just as conservationists will assume that there is some architectural and cultural value. This issue has been emphasized recently, as we have had a series of projects dealing with buildings that are damaged, abandoned, or otherwise in questionable condition. There is no connection between these projects other than the fact that all are houses built during the nineteenth century; it is simply a coincidence that we have investigated and designed stabilization and repairs for a half-dozen buildings in similar condition in the last few months.

When we investigate an existing building, we typically follow three tracks of analysis: current code, original code, and empirical performance. First, and most obviously, if we can analyze a structure using current codes and get acceptable results, then there is no need to continue with any other method. A structure that demonstrably meets current code is by definition acceptable to us, to code officials, and to an owner.

Buildings that have been continuously in use, or have not been flagged unsafe by the NYC Department of Buildings or its equivalent elsewhere, are typically grandfathered. They aren’t required to meet current code as long as nothing much changes. In these cases, we often look at the original design in order to figure out what the builders thought they were doing. Even if we disagree with their analysis, understanding it allows us to work better with the building.

Finally, we can look at the building. Observing empirical performance is both our last resort when code analysis is not possible (because we don’t have enough information) and our first choice to get a sense of a building because it is objective. Rules in codes can change, but physical responses do not. The action of materials under load, the way in which materials age and weather, and the influence of outside forces (gravity and wind, among others) do not change and look at evidence of these things gives us a good picture of whether a building works or not.

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