5 Tips and tools to rehabilitate an old and vacant building

…while preserving the specificity of the territory.

By Alexia Chauliac, French urbanist

All of us are permanent or temporary city-users. The same way we care about flats and houses we inhabit, we do with our neighborhoods, districts and cities.

Cities are currently facing major environmental, social and economic challenges. Trying to address these challenges – preserve the quality of housing and the environment, face disintegration and urban decay and stabilize existing units – is a primary source of neighborhood stability. Through investments, vacant lots and buildings can be transformed in ways that enhance the quality of life of community members and the aesthetic of certain areas. Integrating the concept of “environmental limits” when implementing on site rehabilitations is a key factor of success.

An old degraded house in Paris suburbian area

Revitalization brings its own challenges as well, including processes such as gentrification, in which long time inhabitants are displaced by others. It is also a complex task to conduct since many stakeholders are involved with different and often conflicting interests, and still one must promote a common vision to the project. As well, the project doesn’t start with a blank slate: there are pre-existing conditions to take into account when “recycling” the existing buildings or sites.

Here are a few helpful tips to carry out such projects:

1- Understand the community needs

You need to get a good understanding of the local context and market to align rehabilitation projects with community needs (thinking in terms of community’s history, demographics, historic landmarks of the place, social capital…)

You also have to be aware of changing community needs, which means knowing where the project is leading in 2/5/10 years. You also need to be aware that community needs may change over time. The important thing is for residents to understand the vision and objectives of the development in a long term vision.

The MUCEM (Museum of European and Mediterranean Culture) was once a fortress in Marseille
The MUCEM (Museum of European and Mediterranean Culture) was once a fortress in Marseille

Work with, consult and educate -if necessary- community residents. As a matter of fact, you need to have a clear purpose, talk with respect, present an agenda, be prepared toward hostile behavior and express objectives in a positive language.

In democratic societies, urban regeneration process should adopt approaches involving multiple stakeholders including residents. However, there are often clashes between what local communities want for their neighborhoods on the one hand, and the plans of city administrations on the other.

In addition, corporate interests of commercial developers are added to the mix, which can create difficulties in decision making in a long term process.

2- Search for potential partners

Try to make an inventory of potential partners (such as non profit, investors, institutional framework) to have a clear vision of the project’s environment.

Moreover, be ready to create the necessary tools to communicate with tenants and partners throughout the project. You need to involve people into decision-making process and to encourage them to participate. Being engaged in a problem-solving early in the process is important in order to be reactive to signs of possible troubles or significant disputes.

This old parisian building was rehabilited and turned into le Musée de la Vie Romantique
3- Think At Different Scales

Put your project in different perspectives: neighborhood revitalization / housing preservation / needs of people (especially those with specific needs, such as children, retired, disabled…) – in order to be able to work on all of them.

4- Think About Constraints

Program must be operated in full recognition of political, financial and regulatory constraints (Housing Code, zoning scheme…).

Goals and objectives must be measurable and reviewed periodically. You must as well be prepared to adjust to outside factors (for example a shortage of construction materials…)

5- Promote environmental measures

Promote project-specific environmental measures, such as recycling lanes, energy choices, bicycles lanes, while keeping in mind a city-wide environmental vision.

Most of the ancient houses are already effective in reducing energy consumption as they were designed to promote natural lighting and ventilation. Try to keep that design at its best.

And now, let’s do it !

Innovative city policy as well as grass roots initiatives can make a difference to put vacant buildings back into use. It will help improving the quality of life of community members while making them participate. The efforts and innovations that cities and citizens are undertaking to tackle these challenges should be strengthened and facilitated by institutions.

That’s why the main challenge today is how to best work with the private sector, institutional sector and grassroots initiatives to achieve win-win solutions in sustainable urban regeneration projects.

A library is settled inside this typical Normand house
A library is settled inside this typical Normand house

Text & Pictures: Alexia Chauliac


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