Renovation – the most sustainable type of construction

By Dave Rauma, Senior Project Manager, Lease Crutcher Lewis

Seattle – Seattle is experiencing many historic renovations especially along the Waterfront and Pioneer Square, and in other transit-friendly neighborhoods like South Lake Union. Owners are looking at everything from reorienting buildings to face the waterfront to adapting warehouses to office use. 

It's always rewarding when a historic building finds new life, but smart analysis and early teamwork are essential to make a project financially successful. It takes commitment and planning to overcome the challenges that are intrinsic to revitalizing existing structures. The overall building condition, code issues, building status (historical or landmark), location, and access for construction are key considerations. 

Adaptive reuse (for example changing a historic laundry to office space) triggers a good deal of government oversight, including local landmark review and sometimes federal review, particularly if tax credits are involved. That is in addition to a Master Use Permit (MUP) and City design review. To navigate the legal maze of often overlapping jurisdictions, owners need an architect and consultants early in the project to tell the project’s story to the different agencies and align expectations and requirements so that projects don’t get derailed. Contractors work hand-in-hand with the team to nimbly and accurately price options and help find construction solutions. Having all of these players in the room together ensures win-win solutions, rather than solutions that work for one discipline but not the other disciplines or overall project.

Code issues

Many old buildings are brick, and brick breathes. For insulation value, one option is to cover the interior walls, but most want to see the brick, so one initial consideration is an energy audit to determine the level of cooling and heating needed. Refurbishing or replacing windows (enlarged openings can be possible if not historic) can honor historic protections while conserving energy and reducing the requirement to insulate the interior face of brick at the building perimeter. HVAC and lighting can include low-energy solutions such as VRF (variable refrigerant flow) HVAC plus LED lighting and occupancy sensors. Shades installed on the exterior face of the windows can help insulate the building from solar heat and reduce the need for additional cooling.  

Seismic improvements can be on a volunteer basis but they are definitely required with major renovations. They come in many forms, so in the planning process the architect, engineers and contractor need to review and evaluate priorities to ensure the most cost effective options. Union Stables uses three steel brace frames in lieu of concrete shear walls due to cost and space planning advantage. These also enhance the feel of the interior space. At Occidental Mall in Pioneer Square, shear walls were required and contractors saw-cut and hand dug footings to build them in the occupied buildings. That triggered the need for temporary ventilation, temporary lighting, access and most importantly safety measures for the workers.


Money is typically finite, so cost effective plans should begin with prioritizing and sorting the desired improvements – musts, wants and wish list. Architectural input, engineering requirements and contractor analyses are then developed to enable dependable test budgets. Budgeting must review all design choices -- type of seismic system, mechanical system options to compare both initial and operation costs, and architectural planning that uses materials that will hold up over time while respecting the building's historic identify. Examples include wood beams and posts, wood car decking, custom thermal windows, and reclaimed materials from the building. The team can then manage design to a defined cost target, and typically program more work into that price than a less organized approach of "design, be surprised, then be forced to cut scope" approach. This helps owners secure financing and aids in developing a workable construction schedule, while meeting leasing needs. 


Renovation is the most sustainable type of construction. It keeps huge amounts of material out of landfills, offers the opportunity to reuse and repurpose materials and transforms deteriorating properties into showpieces. Updating building systems can decrease operating costs and reduce energy use. Some renovated buildings perform at par with new buildings, and their rents and tenant profiles prove this. 

With teamwork and smart solutions, the end result will be fantastic for tenants and the neighborhood – and make great sense financially.  

Dave Rauma's 27-years of construction career has focused primarily on building renovations and tenant improvements, typically in central Seattle.  A senior project manager at Lease Crutcher Lewis since 2004, Dave earned a bachelor degree in Business Administration – Construction Management at Minnesota State University at Mankato, and is a graduate of the University of Washington’s Foster School of Business Executive Development program.