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The Value of Old Buildings

By May 10, 2024No Comments
The Value of Old Buildings

In most cities facing urban challenges like housing, road mobility and commercial development, the temptation is to tear down old buildings to make way for new ones. But are we missing a golden opportunity?

Other than the rich historical value of old buildings, there are other factors, such as the building materials locked up in intricate designs fostered when technology was absent and true craftsmanship prevailed. Once demolished, the remains of these skills are lost forever, not to mention the added carbon and climate change burden incurred by disposing of the original materials used to construct these buildings.

The question is how we assess the actual value of old buildings. Do we judge a building by its historical interest, architectural merit, social value, local interest, authenticity or rarity? Or, to be more pragmatic, should we consider the economic value?

Yes, replacing an old building with a new one may increase its real estate value, but have we considered the benefits generated, such as tourists visiting the old buildings and the livelihoods created to support this activity?

In the UK, a survey of 2,000 people found that 69% felt that local heritage buildings and sites are essential to their local community.

Willingness to pay is a critical way to assess how much people wish to retain old buildings. A study found that people were prepared to maintain the British Library to the annual tune of £363 million, against a public subsidy of £83 million. However, as we know, property value is an argument that falls both ways for old buildings.

Developers dream of knocking down old low-rise buildings to replace them with tall, multi-storied residential or commercial real estate. However, as urban activist Jane Jacobs states in her book “The Death and Life of Great American Cities”, there are many economic advantages that certain types of businesses have when located in older buildings. Jacobs asserted that new buildings make sense for major chain stores. Still, other businesses – such as bookstores, ethnic restaurants, antique stores, neighbourhood pubs, and especially small start-ups – thrive in old buildings.

Old buildings can be adapted for multiple uses and preserved as secondary rental units to serve neighbourhoods and communities. Apart from their cultural importance, old buildings can become iconic landmarks to inculcate a sense of belonging and remind us of the culture and history that hold our societies together.

Sadly, though, it is inevitable that many older buildings will succumb to the advances of modern progress and be demolished to make way for municipal priorities as well as commercial goals.

But let us keep this message in mind: They will be lost forever once they are gone. There has to be room in this world for the 3Rs of re-use, rehabilitation, and retrofit. These are the challenges facing us in the 21st century. Let’s hope we make the right call at the right time.

Written by: Dr Thomas Tang, CEO of PJ Sustainability Consulting Limited, is a professional advisor to corporations on sustainability, climate resilience, urban design, and social innovation. He is also a UN Scholar, an adjunct professor, and an author.

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