Building in 2012: a look at the trends

Predictions, always difficult, are probably harder than ever these days. Nevertheless, there are a few trends in the building industry that seem to be persisting through the various economic twists and turns of the recent past.One of these trends is toward renovation over building new. There are a number of reasons for it, some obvious, some perhaps not so obvious.One obvious reason is simple economics – existing buildings can be bought for a lot less than the cost to build a new one. But there is also another factor at work: It is easier to get permits and approvals to redevelop existing property than develop an undisturbed site.And there are a number of policies being actively considered by state and local authorities to make the redevelopment process (as opposed to building new) even easier.Somewhat as a result of this first trend is the growing market for audits and retrofits of energy and lighting systems. Against all the advantages of extending the lives of older buildings, one disadvantage is clearly their excessive energy costs. It is common – even typical – for energy system retrofits to save upwards of 25 percent on annual energy costs. That can often mean payback periods of 6 years or less – not a bad investment, compared to, say, your 401(k).All this retrofitting does not simply mean sales of more efficient furnaces. Often there are required upgrades to building shells, doors, and windows. Structural reinforcing may be needed to support solar panels or new rooftop equipment, along with geothermal wells, a new lighting system — the list goes on.Finally, few existing buildings can be converted to new use exactly as is. Invariably there will be a need for at least some interior and exterior demolition and refit, parking expansions, utility and access improvements, and the like.So, among all the bad news, one bit of good news is that the movement toward redevelopment offers something for nearly everyone in the building trades. That is something to look forward to in 2012.Robert Duval is chief engineer of TFMoran Inc, Bedford.