By Laura Schlereth
Many people these days crave unique spaces for either their homes for a distinctive design or for their office spaces to encourage creativity. One way to do this is revamping the purpose of an existing building, such as a barn, church or warehouse. "People are becoming more environmentally conscious and love the idea of re-using an existing space," says Bonnie Hardy, co-owner of Covenant Construction in London, Ontario. M.J. Whitemarsh, CEO of the Canadian Home Builders' Association - British Columbia, adds that she also sees the trend emerging in such areas as Vancouver that are surrounded by oceans, mountains or land preserves because they don't have much extra land to build on. "We're going to be seeing more and more re-purposing of existing buildings," she says.
Because they're becoming more popular, there are many things a remodeler needs to consider before undertaking these types of projects.
Hardy recently worked on a remodel of a farmhouse where her team aimed to maintain much of its original charm at the request of the family who had owned it for five generations. They salvaged the trim on many of the doors and even recreated a wraparound front porch that the building used to have. They kept much of the original pine floors but had to put in some new recycled pine after they tore down a wall. Inevitably, however, there are going to be some client expectations that are simply not feasible. Whitemarsh says it's common when remodeling an existing structure that plans will change. "You can strategize as best you can, but there is a lot you don't know until you open a wall and see what you're faced with," she says.
For example, you might realize a sink can't be installed because plumbing isn't available in a specific area. Hardy says you can usually remedy this disappointment by providing your client with options. For instance, in her farmhouse project, the owners were hoping to keep the distinctive-looking front door, but Hardy says it was in such bad shape, it was impossible to use as an exterior door. Instead they gave the family the option of using it as a closet door. "It's about spending a lot of time with the clients from the beginning and getting to know the stories," Hardy says. "You have to have a collaborative relationship in which you can say, in a respectful manner of partnership, 'you hired me to be the expert, and these are definitely the limitations.'"
When designing an iconic building, clients will want to keep the vintage feel, but you're responsible for sticking to present-day codes, says Joan Maisonneuve, manager, technical and safety for the Canadian Home Builders' Association - Alberta. For example, when remodeling a church, clients will likely want to keep many of the beautiful stained-glass windows, but recent changes in the fire code limit the percentage of windows allowed in a side yard depending on the distance from the property line and the response time of the fire department. "Code requirements related to energy efficiency could also limit the amount of windows in a wall or require the windows to meet minimum standards for heat loss, which single stained-glass windows would not be able to meet," Maisonneuve says.
It's important to keep in mind the following issues that can come up in unusual remodels.
They're not necessarily cost-effective: "People get shocked (by the price)," Hardy says. She admits that in the case of the farmhouse project, it would have cost less money to build a brand new building, but for the owners who wanted to keep the original structure built by their ancestors, "it was truly a labor of love and heritage."
Extra projects will likely creep up: One significant, time-consuming task that unexpectedly came up in Hardy's project was having to underpin the entire foundation with concrete, which involved digging under the house. Be sure to plan extra time into your schedule for unanticipated projects, and when giving your customer an estimate, tell them extra costs might unexpectedly pop up during construction.
Climate and new materials might cause an issue: For example, Maisonneuve says if you're working with a barn built with plank lumber and timbers that have equalized with the humidity of its environment and you want to turn it into a living space and office, be aware of consequences, such as shifting and shrinking of the wood near the interior dry wall. Abiding by codes should prevent this type of issue, according to Maisonneuve. "(They will require) construction methods that will allow the drywall to float free of the structure," she says.
It's very possible the design and structure of older buildings will not meet the current building codes, which is why it's important to stay educated and current on all building codes.
Here are Maisonneuve's and Hardy's recommendations for resources to stay up-to-date: