Recycling Buildings Saves a lot of Money and Time

There are many ways you can save a lot of money on a building project. But perhaps one of the most cost effective is to recycle an existing building. We are talking about recycling rather than renovation here.


What do we mean by Recycling?

To recycle a building we strip out everything including the roof, windows, doors, walls, ceilings, floors and the MEP (mechanical, electrical and plumbing systems). We take the building right back to the most expensive part of the building – the original basic structure.

We then design and construct a new building based within the existing structure. The structure is hidden within the building so when completed the final result looks like a totally new building.


This can save us the major proportion of a project cost

The largest proportion of the cost of constructing most buildings goes into the foundations and the structure that holds it all up. This is especially the case in earthquake prone areas where the structure must be able to withstand enormous forces.

In large buildings it is surprising just how much cost goes under the ground before the above ground construction begins. Strong foundations are often needed to stabilise the ground and provide support for the enormous weight of the building itself.

Once the foundations have been constructed most buildings these days have a structure of columns, beams, concrete floors and staircases that form the skeleton of the building. These may be of reinforced concrete or steel girders which have to be very strong and are expensive to construct. For further information see:

If they are well designed, built and maintained and have not suffered damage through their lifetime the foundations and structure will not have deteriorated and can last for many, many further years.

It makes sense that, rather than fully demolishing a building and then building a new one from scratch we reuse the existing structure and build our new building within it. This approach can dramatically reduce the project cost.

Recycling can save a lot of time and risk

It takes a lot of time to construct a building. Building regulation and zoning considerations, building design, building permits, preparation of the site, soil tests, stabilisation of the ground, construction of foundations and the building structure can take many months. By recycling an existing building much of this time delay can be avoided.

We also considerably reduce the risk that some unforeseen circumstance crops up that could slow down or even prevent the project going ahead.


Advantages that recycling a building can offer

There are many major advantages with recycling rather than building from new.

  • We can dramatically reduce the cost of the building construction.
  • We can considerably reduce the timescale to completion.
  • We can reduce the risk of unforeseen circumstances.
  • We can also make use of the surrounding infrastructure such as electrical and water supply and wastewater disposal.
  • We can use the original approvals and permits for the building.
  • We can considerably reduce the carbon emissions resulting from construction, the production of concrete is one of the world’s greatest producers of carbon dioxide.


Engineering Considerations

It is important that, in the rebuilding process we do not damage or alter the original structure and we certainly should not add the weight of extra floors on the top of the existing building.

The key person in carrying out such a project is the structural engineer. It is important that before the project starts the engineer examines the existing structure to assess what is and isn’t possible. He/she must check the strength of the concrete and/or steel and the load carrying capacity of the design. He/she must also of the make sure that the structure is well designed and built and has no signs of movement or damage.

The most common failing of concrete structures is the use of incorrect mixtures of cement, sand and aggregate and, most particularly, the addition of too much water to make it easier to pour. Most people don’t realise that the water does “dry off”, it is absorbed by ingredients in the cement and becomes part of the concrete itself. Too much water dramatically weakens the finished concrete. Concrete continues hardening for decades after it is forts mixed and poured. For these reasons it is important that the engineer checks the strength of the concrete. Before the new projects begin.

When designing the new building within the existing structure the engineer can calculate changes to be made and advise as to what is and is not possible in terms of the loads that the structure must carry and the forces the building will be expected to resist. New walls to be built, equipment to be installed or operating vibrations will all have to be taken into consideration. For example a swimming pool on the top floor would add an enormous extra load on the structure.


What can we recycle?

Recycling is obviously most appropriate for warehouses, hotels, high rise apartments or office blocks however it can also be used for smaller buildings such as shops or houses as long as the building has a sound structure.

When looking for a building to recycle we need to check the building to make sure it has a structure suitable for recycling. This may not be obvious on first appearance and engineering advice is advised.


Unfinished Projects

It is also very suitable for projects that, for whatever reason (such as running out of money), were not completed in the first place. If the skeleton of a structure exists then the original planned designed can be followed or a totally new design can be created.


Building Regulations and Land Zoning

Building regulations and zoning determine what you can and cannot build and what the building can be used for. These will need to be checked before project planning begins. These will vary considerably depending on where you live in the world but for an example of typical building regulations and zoning see:

So, when recycling a building, building requirements such as access, maximum height, setbacks and land coverage will probably remain unchanged. The one area of particular note is the building usage and what is allowed in the land zoning.

So, if approval has already been given and the use of the new building remains the same as the original, it is highly likely that this can be used to cover the new building.


Covid and the “New Normal”

The Covid Pandemic has dramatically altered people’s lives. Working from home has become the new normal for many people and many organisations have found that they don’t need to spend large proportions of their turnover leasing and maintaining spacious office buildings.

We can, therefore, expect that there will be a surplus of vacant office buildings which will need to be redesigned to suit different purposes. It is highly likely that many will be recycled for residential accommodation.


Previous “Fixed Abode” articles can be found subject indexed on our website at Opinions expressed are those of Phil Wilson. He can be contacted through the website or the office on 0361 288 789 or 08123 847 852.

Copyright © 2021 Phil Wilson C.Eng

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