Sometimes Progress Requires “Tearing Things Down and Rebuilding From Scratch”

(p. B6) In 1931, glass bottles of sparkling soda began rolling off the assembly line at the Coca-Cola bottling plant in downtown Indianapolis. It’s unlikely that the factory’s architect gave much thought to the possibility that shifting consumer habits would make the glass bottle a relic within a couple of generations.

Instead of slipping into obsolescence, the factory went on to have multiple lives. After the Coke factory closed in 1971, the building was briefly used to house Indy 500 racecars, then spent decades as a school bus garage before becoming a 139-room boutique hotel anchoring a new entertainment district last year.

A century ago, developers didn’t give the future much thought, but today, they don’t have the same luxury. A combination of pandemic disruptions and constantly changing technology has brought the hazy, distant horizon much closer.

As a result, a growing number of projects are racing against the clock as profitability and utility are squeezed into the ever-shortening life of a commercial building. Statistics illustrating the acceleration of building life cycles are scarce, but experts in the industry are starting to take heed.

“The cycle of changing is becoming shorter,” said Jefferson Duarte, associate professor of real estate finance at Rice University. Projects that developers once could have collected rents on for half a century or more don’t allow that anymore.

. . .

Consumer and worker needs are changing more quickly than they used to, driven by technology, shifting supply chains and expectations of greater amenities.

. . .

The core problem is that commercial construction is an industry producing highly durable goods in a world that is asking for greater flexibility with changing tastes and economic conditions, Professor Duranton said.

. . .

“Sometimes the right thing will involve tearing things down and rebuilding from scratch,” Professor Duranton said.

For the full story, see:

Kevin Williams. “The Ever-Shrinking Shelf Life of Buildings.” The New York Times (Weds., February 24, 2021): B6.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date Feb. 23, 2021, and has the title “As Buildings’ Life Spans Shrink, Developers Try to Adjust.”)

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