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Some Older Commercial Buildings Have Nowhere To Go But Up

An older building gets more clear height and a new lease on life.

A Midwest developer not long ago was worried it had an industrial-sized white elephant on its hands.

The 220K SF vacant manufacturing plant it owned in Wyoming, Michigan, seemed to be nearing the end of its useful life. Further complicating matters, the building’s roof was only 16 feet tall — too low to accommodate the needs of many potential tenants.

“Today’s owners and tenants want their clear heights to be 30-plus feet,” said Mason Harris, vice president of operations for Rooflifters. “This has to do with the height of racking systems or other storage or manufacturing equipment they will need to operate in the space.”

Harris said the developer was considering demolishing the building but was open to other, less costly alternatives. The cost of razing the property could run into the mid-six figures, on top of the even larger expense of building a new building in its place. 

The developer reached out to Rooflifters to execute a solution: double the height of the existing roof to 32 feet. Conducted in two phases with a proprietary hydraulic system, the lift took approximately three months to complete. Once the raised roof was in place, support columns were installed where needed and walls were extended upward and reconnected to the roof. 

This brought new life and opportunities to the building at a fraction of the cost of new construction, Harris said.

In fact, the cost of lifting a facility’s roof to accommodate modern users’ needs can be less than one-third of the cost of replacing the property with a new industrial building.

“This building was the definition of ‘functionally obsolete’ — every year we considered tearing it down,” the developer said. “This all changed with the roof-lifting plan. We now have a long-term commitment from the new tenant — a supplier to the auto industry — and favorable tax incentives from the city.”

Harris said roof lifting is a viable option for aging industrial facilities that either are located in dense, urban areas with no room to grow horizontally or are constrained by zoning restrictions. Other candidates include retail properties looking to attract modern commercial tenants and self-storage operations that need to expand their square footage, he said.

At issue is a building’s “clear height,” which is the unobstructed vertical clearance from the floor to the structural steel level of the roof. A masonry building built 50 years ago might have a maximum clear height of only around 14 feet to 16 feet. Modern buildings constructed with precast, tilt-up methods — the sort the developer knew it would compete against for tenants — range from 28 feet to 32 feet tall, and even 40-foot heights are not unheard of.

It is not only industrial buildings that are trying to avoid obsolescence. Harris said the decline of brick-and-mortar retail, which accelerated during the pandemic, has left owners searching for ways to make their properties attractive to modern tenants, whether it is a big-box retailer or an entertainment venture such as a trampoline park, rock climbing gym or movie theater.

“Owners want to get additional foot traffic by bringing in a major tenant, but you can't get one of those with a small, 16-foot clear height,” he said. “We can modify all or any section of that shopping center so that it will appeal to a tenant with name-brand recognition.”

Rooflifters President Marty Shiff said potential clients recognize the benefits of roof-raising when they run the numbers. In addition to avoiding demolition, development and construction costs, the process uses mostly off-the-shelf materials, avoiding the supply chain backlogs that disrupt and add costs to many construction projects today. 

He added that as long as the heightened building stays within allowable zoning heights and no floor area is added to the building, the work falls under the category of “renovation” as opposed to “new construction” in most municipalities. This shaves significant time and money from the permitting process.

“With the cost of construction these days, the lead time for entitlements and all of the additional costs that come with building a new building or even ripping off a roof, our process has only become more cost-effective and much quicker,” Shiff said.

This article was produced in collaboration between Studio B and Rooflifters. Bisnow news staff was not involved in the production of this content.

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