Understanding the Specialty Contractor's Role in Adaptive Reuse Projects

Sept. 28, 2010

In the era of adaptive reuse, owners and developers are opting for massive upgrades to their structures. The most common change of use is likely the adaptation of an apartment building to a condominium. Other examples include change from a hotel to condominiums, warehouse to apartments, parking garage to office building, and even church to office building.

In the era of adaptive reuse, owners and developers are opting for massive upgrades to their structures. The most common change of use is likely the adaptation of an apartment building to a condominium. Other examples include change from a hotel to condominiums, warehouse to apartments, parking garage to office building, and even church to office building.

As an owner, developer, contractor, design professional, or construction manager, the first time you meet a specialty contractor will either be a welcome occurrence or a last minute addition to your adaptive reuse project. Either way, with more companies creating special project and pre-planning teams, specialty contractors are becoming integral team members, especially in adaptive reuse projects. However, key to success is understanding how a specialty contractor can add tremendous value to these projects. So what is a specialty contractor? It is a team of specialists performing construction work requiring special skill and whose principal contracting business involves the use of specialized building trades, crafts or technologies.

Interior Fit Out

During the process of adaptive reuse project, interiors are often completely gutted and replaced with materials and designs better suited to new usage requirements. The interior fit out of these structures is focused on number of units, size of rooms and quality of interior finishes as well as the aesthetics of the interior finishes.

Often these adaptive reuse projects change the structural makeup of a building in ways that are not obvious at first glance. New floor openings, increased load requirements and complete changes to the overall building structure are very common. These changes often require innovative structural strengthening solutions, which frequently evolve even as the project is taking place.

There are many different strengthening techniques that can be tailored to fit the aesthetic, logistic and economic constraints of a particular project. Fiber Reinforced Polymers (FRP) can be used to increase the capacity of a concrete member by up to 60 percent or more in a profile that is less than 1/4-inch thick. It also is possible to imbed the fiber reinforcing into the existing structure so that there is no noticeable change to the dimensions of the structure.

Section enlargement and external post-tensioning are also very effective strengthening techniques when space limitations aren't as tight and the additional capacity requirements are high. Many times these techniques are used in combination to provide an overall strengthening solution that satisfies the many different parameters of a particular project.

Despite the massive changes to these structures, many teams overlook the importance of a specialty contractor's role in finding the optimal solutions to meet the revised demands placed on the building. A specialty contractor engaged early in the design process, and teamed with engineers and architects, can help to provide a balanced approach to meeting the engineering requirements with constructability and cost.

The Building Envelope

By definition, "envelope" is an encapsulating covering such as an outer shell or membrane. In simple building terms, it consists of the roof, the above-grade wall system and the wall system below grade. An envelope's purpose is to provide protection from external elements, which in building construction means protection from moisture, air, and temperature ingress and egress.

In adaptive reuse projects, the building envelope of the structure can be completely replaced, salvaged and preserved, or only specific elements restored. However, the roof, walls, windows, and below-grade elements, in many cases, are not reviewed or incorporated into the project unless they are leaking or falling off. The danger is that millions of dollars may be spent during construction and the building stills leaks and has unsafe conditions.

In order to accurately determine how elements of the building envelope should be adapted, a structure should receive a complete condition assessment by a design professional or a design professional teamed with an experienced preplanning team. Key factors to review include the useable life and anticipated replacement value of each component, maintenance history of the systems and components, previous major capitol projects, aesthetic design desires, and the impact on the existing structure, as well how long the owner intends to retain the property.

A building envelope specialist, whether a design professional or a team comprised of a design professional and a specialty contractor, may be required to perform a physical inspection, as well as conduct and document any necessary water tests. The specialist may also assist with material selection and developing the project scope. On projects involving windows, the specialist will involve the product manufacturer as well as testing companies and, as necessary, would encourage the team to engage a building envelope design professional.

Value Engineering

Once again, the earlier the specialty contractor is involved in the process, the better. As one of the few contactors that can provide repair services to all elements of the building envelope, specialty contractors are excellent resources for collaborative value engineering. The process typically involves a review of material costs for items such as roofing and windows to see if there is any opportunity to reduce costs. Existing conditions are also reviewed to determine the risks associated with requested changes. If the costs can be reduced and the owner understands the consequences — such as additional maintenance requirements, lower performance or even the need for capital improvements in the near future — prudent value engineering can occur.

Value engineering can extend to strengthening building components. Considering the required capacity for upgrading each individual component allows the specialty contractor to find the most cost-effective approach for each — whether it be carbon fiber, external post tensioning or enlargement.

Finding and Working with Specialty Contractors

Relationships with specialty contractors can be developed through involvement with associations and by keeping up with the latest technologies in the construction industry. Additionally, key people, whether they are manufacturers, distributors or specialty contractors, are usually writing the articles or performing presentations to introduce their technology to the industry.

The experience of the individuals is a key factor. Consider the experience of the involved estimators, project managers and project development people. The longevity of the specialty contractor, its bonding, insurance limits, and financial statement will also help you choose the most experienced partner.

A specialty contractor is usually hired by the general contractor, however, over the years it has become more common for the specialty contractor to be retained by the owner or owner's representative. They may also be brought onto a project by the team's design professional to assist with planning and implementation.

During the project, the specialty contractor will work closely with the design professional to design and install alternate approaches. The specialty contractor will also work with the general contractor as well the subcontractors such as plumbers, HVAC or electricians.

Proven Value

Given enough time, an experienced team can investigate and develop solutions to adaptive re-use project challenges without assistance from a specialty contractor. This team, however, is usually "reinventing a wheel" that a qualified specialty contractor with its knowledge of alternative technology, applications and costs already developed through years of experience. Additionally, failing to include a specialty contractor on the preplanning team usually impacts the budget as well as the schedule. If the schedule is affected and the team reacts to the challenge by taking a standard subcontractor and putting them in a specialty contractor's role, safety and quality of the completed project may be jeopardized.

The specialty contractor is uniquely qualified to handle obstacles and change with regard to their work. While no two jobs are ever alike, the basic principles and fundamentals usually are and, the specialty contractor's experience in the field — with project management and with project development — is where the value lies.

The role of a specialty contractor in the dynamic adaptive re-use world is proven. Proactively identifying the need to integrate a specialty contractor into the project design/ development team early in the process will result in a quality end product and success for the entire team.

Author Information
Mark K. Howell is a recognized leader in concrete and masonry maintenance repair industry and has been involved personally in investigations and restoration of many contemporary and historic structures during the last decade. With degrees in architecture, civil engineering and construction management technologies, Howell is a member of International Concrete Repair Institute, American Society of Testing Materials E6 Committee, Sealant Waterproofing Restoration Institute, The Exterior Design Institute, Partners for Sacred Places, and the Association for Preservation Technology. Mark is employed with Structural Preservation Systems in Baltimore, Maryland.
Matt Frye has worked on a wide range of repair and restoration projects including numerous parking garages, high-rise apartments and condominiums, as well as a variety of industrial facilities. He also has performed preliminary designs for several post-tensioned structures. Frye is a project manager with Structural Preservation Systems in Baltimore, Maryland. Frye holds a Bachelor of Science in civil engineering from Utah State University and a Master of Science in civil engineering with an emphasis on structures from Penn State University.
Structural Preservation Systems, Inc., a leading provider of structural repair, masonry and concrete restoration, strengthening, and protection services with locations throughout the United States, is a subsidiary of Structural Group, based in Baltimore, Maryland.