In older cities and highly developed areas, finding greenspace to develop new residential and commercial spaces is often a difficult challenge. But the adaptive reuse of former industrial and warehouse properties offers developers a unique architectural platform to repurpose an existing structure and bring life back into often vacant buildings or blighted areas.
While some environmental concerns with repurposed development of older properties (gasoline stations, dry cleaners, asbestos, and lead based paint) are well known, developers and owners of these properties can often run into lesser known environmental concerns that can cause significant delay to development and increase costs if not identified and mitigated properly during the acquisition and design phase of a project. Below are a few examples of environmental concerns typically found at older properties that can be identified during the due diligence and design phase of a project before a construction schedule is affected.
Heating Oil Tanks
Prior to installation of municipal gas service, homes and businesses throughout California were heated using boilers fueled by heating oil. For buildings constructed during the early part of the 20th century, it is not uncommon to find heating oil tanks buried beneath basements or sidewalks adjoining the building. Unfortunately, due the age of the tanks, most records and building plans showing the locations of these tanks have been lost. The tanks are often not permitted with the City Fire Departments or State regulatory agencies and are often unknown to building tenants and owners. Fortunately, there are often telltale signs of these tanks that can be identified. These include vent risers along the side of buildings and fill port covers. Often if a building has a boiler system, a tank system is nearby. Fortunately, a geophysical survey can often be done to locate the fugitive tank. As long as the tank has not leaked, the closure and removal process is usually straight forward and can be done in coordination with site demolition or construction activities.
Industrial properties and commercial properties that generate waste water typically treat the water through a simple gravity flow settling tank or clarifier prior to discharge to the municipal sewer system. These systems, which usually consist of a series of small subterranean metal or concrete vaults, are typically located in paved areas on the exterior of the building and can be identified by a series of metal cover plates. Over time, it is not uncommon for the clarifiers to leak and release the waste oil or solvents previously collected within the settling chambers to the soil and or groundwater. A limited environmental site assessment can often be conducted determine if a significant release has occurred from a leaking clarifier. While the abandonment process for clarifiers is relatively simple, the regulatory process can often cause delays if not anticipated during development of the construction schedule.
It is also not uncommon to identify abandoned or unknown septic systems on older properties. Like clarifier and tank systems mentioned above, these systems can sometime be identified through interviews with building owners, review of building and plumbing plan documentation, visual surveys for cleanout ports, and geophysical surveys. At industrial properties, even where the septic system has been removed, it is important to test and sample the soils in the area of the septic system to assess if hazardous wastes or chemicals were improperly disposed of through the septic system.
PCB Light Ballast
PCBs are a mixtures of chemicals that have good electrical insulating properties and are commonly found in a variety of equipment including fluorescent light ballast. Light ballasts manufactured before 1979 contain about a teaspoon of concentrated PCBs sealed inside the capacitor. When older ballasts fail, the capacitor may rupture and leak PCBs. While exposure can cause liver damage and irritation to the eyes, nose, and throat, PCBs are also probable Cancer-causing agents and have the potential for causing reproductive damage in humans. Light ballasts of these types can often be identified during a hazardous materials survey and disposed of as a hazardous waste.
PCBs in Caulking and Paint
In addition to electronic components, PCBs were also incorporated to other building finishes such as caulking and paint. Testing methodologies to identify PCBs in building materials are just now being developed. Nevertheless, PCB containing building materials require special handling and disposal.
Bird and Bat Droppings
In vacant and abandoned buildings, it is not uncommon to find large amounts of bird and bat droppings. Many diseases such as histoplasmosis and cryptococcosis are caused by funguses within accumulations of droppings. These diseases can cause high fever, blood abnormalities, pneumonia, and even death. Furthermore, special handling is required during the removal process to protect worker safety.
Lead Based Paint vs. Lead Containing Paint
While the construction cost impact and special disposal and handling requirements associated with the presence of lead based paint (lead content higher than 5,000 parts per million) are well understood, often the liability and risks associated with the removal or disturbance of lead containing paint (lead content of 600 ppm or greater) is overlooked. During removal of lead containing paint, Cal OSHA still requires the employer to conduct air monitoring and implement engineering and work practice controls to reduce and maintain employee exposure to lead at or below the permissible exposure limits.
Mercury switches are switches that open and close electrical circuits when a small amount of the liquid metal mercury make contact with metal electrodes. These are often found in older style thermostats. Due to the toxic risks of mercury exposure, mercury switches must also be handled and disposed of as a hazardous waste.
For owners and developers of adaptive reuse projects it is important to take all of these potential environmental risks into account when preparing budgets and construction costs. That’s why comprehensive due diligence at the time of project inception is so important. While limiting hazardous material surveys to only asbestos and lead based paint considerations and the use of dated or incomplete Phase I Environmental Site Assessment reports may provide some initial cost savings, construction delays and the possible liability associated with these often overlooked environmental issues will often eclipse any potential savings in the long run.
Fortunately, Alta’s knowledgeable and experienced team of geologist, engineers, and scientists can help developers and building owners limit exposure to these risks by identifying them early on during the site acquisition and design phase of a project and developing safe and cost effective solutions for their mitigation.
For more information on environmental challenges in adaptive reuse projects please contact Eric Fraske firstname.lastname@example.org or Dave Shack email@example.com or via telephone (562) 495-5777.