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Some developers opt for old buildingsvCosts sometimes are lower than building new

By , - Last modified: February 15, 2011 at 9:25 AM


Your business is growing by leaps and bounds. And you're looking to move someplace that will accommodate all that growth.
A growing number of developers want you to work with buildings that are already there. And they say they've developed ways to make renovations less expensive.
Robert Ecklin, president of Ecklin Development Co., Lancaster County, specializes in renovating property in downtown Lancaster. In most cases, buildings can be refurbished at a competitive cost, he explained. "It's not far out of line unless the building has been structurally damaged."
Structural problems could include timbers that are rotted out or a faulty foundation. However, Ecklin said that is rare in old buildings.
Ed Drogaris, CEO and president of The Drogaris Companies of Lancaster, agreed structural problems are rare in old buildings.
"A lot of them have a stone foundation," Drogaris said. "A lot of old buildings were built by craftsmen who built for the long term. Many of the craftsmen were European immigrants, who were used to building for 500, 1,000 years. They were very well-built. They've stood the test of time."
Building codes
Many of the buildings were constructed before building codes were instituted, such as BOCA, which is a national building code and is updated regularly. In addition, municipalities update and change their own codes. The state Department of Labor and Industry has a code for third-class cities, as well as others.
Municipalities might also have other, separate codes. The Americans with Disabilities Act also has specific requirements at both the state and federal levels.
Builders can face a lot of problems when they try to bring older structures into compliance with modern codes. But, they often can come up with some creative solutions. For instance, depending on size, there must be a second way for people to exit a floor in case of a fire, such as a fire exit or fire tower. Fire escapes are not legal anymore.
Ecklin said he has solved that in the past by sharing space for exits with the other building owners.
There are other issues, Drogaris said, that crop up simply because a building is old. Drogaris and others have been urging the Legislature in Harrisburg to revamp the current building code to allow exemptions for older buildings.
"I don't think that the Legislature had the idea that anything 15 to 20 years old needs to be knocked down," Drogaris said. "Much less 50 to 100 years old."
Other challenges include the federal regulations under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Doors have to be a certain width, and many areas of a building have to be accessible by wheelchair.
Drogaris said he's made some creative changes to accommodate the ADA. For instance, in a recent project, there was a small step into a door. Instead of trying to construct a ramp at each doorway, the entire hallway was made into a ramp.
Drogaris said many cities across the state and the nation have space in existing buildings that could be used if they were allowed to use the standards they were built for, instead of trying to conform to the same standards as new construction.
"It's difficult to make general statements because properties are so different," said Doug Cherry, director of business development at Wickersham Construction and Engineering Inc. in Lancaster. "And corporate requirements vary.
What are the costs?
In general, Cherry said, building on existing property is usually less costly than building from scratch. He said it's "usually" less expensive; however, the cost of renovations vs. the cost of property and construction has to be carefully evaluated.
If an existing building is already on the site, then demolition and landfill costs add up even before the new one is erected.
Time is another factor. It takes less time to renovate than it does to build new, partly because the needed infrastructure is already in place, and partly because of the complex municipal approval process that eats away the clock and dollars.
Randolph Harris, executive director of the Historic Preservation Trust of Lancaster County said saving a building is sometimes more expensive than building new.
"The point I want to make is that it could go either way because every building is different, every building is unique," Harris said. "If you have a raw piece of land and a template-type building, like a chain store-type building, chances are that might be less expensive than renovating."
But, on the other hand, Harris said, there are many incentives available at the local, state and federal levels to encourage investment in existing historic buildings.
However, Harris added, there are other reasons to use existing structures.
"They'll never replicate the quality of the construction that's already there," Harris said. "They're dealing with a piece of art vs. a Jello mold. Every old building was done by a local craftsperson and their gang."

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