Vacant Property Management

Sustainable building practices

11 MAY 2017,
The restoration of a building damaged by fire
The restoration of a building damaged by fire

Preserve and renovate existing buildings is more sustainable than demolish and erect new ones. The U.S. green building certification system – LEED – encourages meaningful material conservation. This can be translated into either reusing existing buildings or using salvaged materials. In an effort to minimize the impacts associated with the whole production of building materials - from extraction to their final use – LEED promotes a life cycle approach where each action of the entire process embodies impact reduction.

Apparently, preferring old materials to new ones can potentially lead to large CO2 emission reduction, especially if this approach is extended to every intervention instead of a few isolated cases. Climate change benefits from reuse as opposed to new construction even in the case of new energy-efficient solutions. In fact, a new building that is more efficient than a traditional one, takes several decades before its efficiency can overcome the negative impact resulting from its construction. As a consequence, preserving historical buildings is important not only to retain their cultural value, but also to protect the environment.

This raises the issue with vacant property management. Many cities are filled with abandoned buildings, some resulting from dismissed activities, others from a foreclosure. Consequences of this widespread phenomenon can differ depending on the context. In any case, leaving those properties empty, with neither a maintenance nor a reuse plan, can bring important repercussions on the surrounding context. Most of all, they can decrease property value and increase the likelihood of various types of crime like vandalism and robbery.

Over the past few years, the presence of vacant buildings has become a pressing concern in the city of Seattle. A few months ago, the Seattle Department of Construction and Inspections (SDCI) proposed a set of amendments to address this issue. In particular, it focused on strengthening security, removing garbage and debris, speeding up the process of demolition and redevelopment proposal. The main aim of the “Vacant Building Ordinance” was to guarantee public health and safety risks. Many buildings, especially single-family residences, were reported to have crumbling foundation, sagging roofs, and other problems that make them unfit for human habitation. The proposed amendments wanted to speed up the approval process of demolition for unsecure structures that would eventually reduce the costs associated with maintenance and monitoring of the precarious buildings. On the contrary, when demolition was not required, stricter standards were proposed for securing windows from entry.

Unfortunately, in the Seattle Ordinance there isn’t any mention to neither environmental nor social issues. Concerns over demolition and reconstruction fail to promote any reuse and renovation approaches, while local institutions haven’t considered any plan to address homelessness in a city with so many vacant buildings. On the contrary, the city’s wealth has pushed institutions to propose policies that “Encourage the replacement of housing that is demolished or converted to non-residential or higher-cost-residential use.”

On the other side of the planet, in Italy, the presence of abandoned buildings that need to be renovated is huge. Missing this opportunity would be nonsense. Despite interesting but isolated projects, reuse practices are not as extended as they should be and therefore it is important to make them mandatory. In fact, national institutions have been working for two years on a new law that would reduce to zero soil consumption by 2050, while promoting the reuse of existing buildings. However, economic and political interests are intertwined in a way that it is difficult for the new law to be approved in a reasonable amount of time.

Right now, it is estimated that every minute there is an additional 7 m2 of concrete surface, corresponding to roughly 80 football camps at the end of the day. In fact, despite the global crisis and relevant damages occurred in vulnerable areas, new buildings are still under construction at the expense of the national territory.