Building Reuse Offers Environmental and Earthquake-safety Benefits, and Reduces Costs (Part 3 of 3)

Extending lives of existing buildings cuts our carbon footprint

REDUCING CARBON FOOTPRINT — Reusing existing building can significantly cut down on waste, reduce the consumption of
natural resources, and save on construction costs.


Many building professionals and professional organizations, including the U.S. Green Building Council, have come to believe that building reuse and adaptive reuse are positive steps toward achieving LEED certification for a building.[i]

These beliefs are based on numerous studies and ample evidence that reuse, renovation, and adaptive reuse are very beneficial in terms of reduced lifetime costs and environmental impacts.

Another aspect of the green benefits of building reuse is the fact that many older, historic structures were routinely built with climate at front of mind.

“Green buildings are typically thought of as ones newly built, but many historic buildings can be just as sustainable if they are properly maintained and operated,” according to the USGBC.[ii]

Buildings constructed more than a century ago are generally more efficient than those built between 1920 and 2000, according to data from the Energy Information Agency. Why? Structures that predate HVAC systems and other modern technological conveniences make the best use of natural means of heating, cooling and ventilation – making them overall more efficient than structures that are dependent on technology to keep them comfortable.[iii]

Quakes, older buildings and promoting social and environmental justice

Arizona in 2018 conducted a full-scale earthquake drill, based on the anticipated scenario that 400,000 Southern California evacuees will go there to seek shelter following the devastation of a massive earthquake. The reason for this anticipated wave of nearly a half a million refugees was simple: Southern California simply has too many buildings at risk of failure due to an earthquake.

The California Earthquake Authority estimates that as many as 270,000 people could be displaced from their homes when the next major earthquake strikes Los Angeles. Water, electricity, gas, sewer, and internet services could be interrupted. Other potential impacts, cited in the USGS ShakeOut scenario include:

  • 1,800 deaths
  • 1,600 fires
  • 750 people trapped inside buildings
  • 50,000 ER visits
  • 19 days of search and rescue efforts

The threat of a devastating earthquake is real. Generally, earthquakes of magnitude 6 and above cause the most concern. Nearby, these quakes can cause shaking intensities that can break chimneys and cause considerable damage to the most seismically vulnerable structures, And while magnitude is important, a key factor is where a quake strikes. People generally care most about earthquakes that strike under or near the heavily populated areas where they live.

When it comes to earthquakes, older structures make up most of a city’s dangerous building stock – and much of that is used as housing or in business for lower-wage commercial operations such as manufacturing, logistics, and service-related industries. These structures, because of their age, are more affordable to rent, but many could be easily and extensively damaged in a major earthquake.

Many older buildings damaged by earthquakes disproportionately impact lower socioeconomic communities, small businesses and property owners. These communities, including seniors, minorities, families, and students, are at greater risk of injury or significant loss in a quake. These vulnerable populations also face being displaced from their homes by a disaster because they are less able to adjust to sudden economic losses.

Structural retrofits of vulnerable buildings can extend the structure’s lifetime, help to reduce greenhouse gases, and stave off catastrophic social and economic consequences that can cripple a region for years or decades following a major earthquake. If coupled with a renovation, the building can easily become more marketable to today’s consumers.

As we have seen with wildfires and other natural disasters, a constrained housing market resulting from red-tagged apartment buildings can drive up the cost of housing, resulting in the displacement of residents forced to seek housing in more affordable communities. This, in turn, can lead to a drastic reduction in the workforce available to local businesses that may remain in operation, plus a drop in consumer spending that could force the local economy in a downward spiral.  Add in the damage to many older warehouses and office buildings, and you could have a dire economic situation wherein businesses are forced to close and hope of reopening is a dim prospect.  That’s a scenario that could be avoided through earthquake retrofits of existing buildings.

There are times when a building may have outlived its usefulness and will need to be replaced. But whenever possible, the reuse and structural retrofit of buildings should be seriously considered as one of the greenest and most cost-effective options.

Resilience and sustainability are essential parts of every business plan.  Make sure that your business has seriously considered these elements.  Talk with structural engineers, architects and other experts about the options best suited to your business situation.  Plan out your steps to achieve your goals.  Analyze the investment necessary to meet your goals and the potential savings.  Examine funding options such as SBA and other sources.  Draw together a project team to make your plans a reality.

That’s the road to your business becoming more resilient and sustainable – making your building safer and reducing its carbon footprint.

[i] U.S. Green Building Council,

[ii] Ibid

[iii] Ibid

(posted 3/9/23)


About the Author

Recently appointed to Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass’ Transition Team, Ali Sahabi, previously received the California Governor’s Environmental and Economic Leadership Award for taking a sustainable approach toward community development and environmental restoration in the 543-acre Dos Lagos mixed-use development in Corona, CA. A licensed General Engineering Contractor (GEC), Sahabi is an expert in building resilience and sustainability. He is Co-Founder and Chief Operating Officer of Optimum Seismic, Inc., which has completed more than 3,500 structural retrofit and adaptive reuse projects for multifamily residential, commercial, and industrial buildings throughout California. Contact Optimum Seismic at 833-978-7664 or visit to learn more about your adaptive reuse options for your building.  

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