As I mentioned in a previous post, I have worked for the same commercial general contractor – W.E. O’Neil Construction for my entire career of 18 years. I decided to start a series about commercial remodeling to try and assist someone going through the process. This is the first of many blog posts about commercial remodeling and you can find my introduction to the entire series here if you are interested in learning more about commercial remodeling.
In the commercial construction remodel world, we always speak in terms of construction divisions or Construction Specifications Institute (CSI) codes. I didn’t know they existed before I started in construction 18 years ago and my guess is unless you are an architect, engineer, or constructor (AEC) you have probably never come across them.
CSI codes in construction are the standard order in which every specification section is organized to consistently display information on every trade associated with a project.
In both the old (16 division) versions of the CSI codes and the new (50 division) versions, demolition is the first one on the list. Demolition is the first trade that you must start with in any remodel or ground up project, so it makes sense for me to start here. It’s not the most fun trade in commercial construction and it’s the riskiest trade really in terms of unforeseen extra costs that you may run across, because you are uncovering everything that you assumed (during design) is accurate. Well I am here to tell you that whatever was built “in the 60’s” or “yesterday” is probably not exactly what you expect to see when you open everything up.
Commercial Remodeling Demolition Definition
Demolition in commercial remodeling is the removal of everything that is not anticipated to remain in the space as part of your new project.
Some standard examples of demolition include the removal of existing walls, finishes, and systems that are no longer anticipated to be part of your new space. The “systems” can consist of all of the systems that were previously installed to make the space run and those include plumbing (water supply, waste, and vent), mechanical (cooling and heating units, ductwork, grilles), and electrical (lighting, convenience outlets, and all power needed for other systems). Now that also means the old teledata and security systems that exist in most current offices as well. Pretty much anything that you can see in your old space and everything that you can’t see but know needs to be removed can be part of the “demolition” scope of work in a commercial remodel project.
I set this blog up to try and help people so here is my new “Dan’s Tips” section!
Dan’s Tips and Risks to Watch out for in Commercial Remodeling Demolition
Asbestos and All Other Hazardous Materials – Know what you are demolishing!
Before you even think about starting to demolish a space you need to ask either the building owner or if you ARE the building owner you need to figure out if there is any hazardous material within the space that you want to remodel. If you haven’t done one yet you are going to need to perform an analysis of the building to determine if there is any hazardous material within it. Usually this is called a “Level 1” or “Phase 1” site assessment. Typically, in large cities like Denver at least there are usually multiple firms who can perform this analysis for you. They will ask some questions about the building, learn as much as they can from the building records in terms of building age and what you know about already, and then they will come in to test for the most common hazardous materials. Unless you run an autobody shop or a nuclear power station the hazardous materials will typically come down to either asbestos or lead (in paint or similar). They will identify where it occurs and at what levels and then you will be required to deal with it in some form or another. Please keep in mind that if asbestos (especially) is found in the building it’s almost definitely going to add costs to the project that you probably didn’t anticipate, and costs that aren’t going into “cool, new finishes” or anything. It’s really just going to be money spent on getting rid of the hazardous materials. If you are a tenant your building owner owes you this report (I think even before you lease the space?) so it’s OK to demand this from your building owner.
Safing off needs to be a priority number in whenever you are starting demolition on a project. I know from thirdhand AND firsthand experience when safing off didn’t quite go as planned. Frankly it can be a very dangerous situation if a space hasn’t been properly safed off and you start construction. There are several systems that can cause safety concerns if they are not properly disconnected or turned off. Here is an incomplete list of a few examples:
Electrical Safe Off
Power has got to be turned off in the area. Sometimes this is easier said than done. First of all of the local outlets and/or lights have to be turned off, but even if you think you have everything in the area you always need to make sure that you are 1) stopping if you see anything out of the ordinary such as a main feeder running through the area you are working and 2) checking for the existence of power. This should be done with a non-contact voltage sensor or a multimeter if you are working inside of an electrical panel. By the way, DON’T work inside an electrical panel unless you are an electrician and most electrical subcontractors don’t work inside a live electrical panel. VERY dangerous stuff and I have met a couple of electricians who have gotten “fried” pretty good. You don’t come out of an electrical shock the same person as before, that’s for sure!
Fire Alarm Safe Off
Related to electrical but something that will cause another way different headache is a building fire alarm. There are usually two things you need to worry about when doing work in a building with a live fire alarm system. First, you need to put the fire alarm system on “standby” with your fire alarm monitoring company. This means that if the alarm does go off because it senses “smoke” (usually the cause is construction dust) it will not alert the fire department and cause the “trucks to roll” as we like to say. Second, even if you put the system on standby, and especially if people are still occupying part of the building during the commercial remodel, you need to cover or disconnect the fire alarm devices that may possible be affected by the remodel activities going on. Putting the system on standby will not prevent the building fire alarm from going off in alarm (and effectively evacuating the building). You can prevent this by “capping”, “bagging”, or “taping” (not ideal, this causes residue to form and possibly ruining the detector) fire alarm smoke detectors so that you block potentially dusty air from entering the head and causing a false alarm. Finally, this can kind of fall under the general caution “don’t cut or damage anything that needs to stay” but most remodels usually have some form of life safety wiring or conduit running through the space to get to another space, or to get back to the main fire alarm control panel (FACP). Don’t cut it. Prevent others from cutting it. Do whatever you can do to make sure people don’t cut it including reminding them daily, marking it with paint, physically protecting it, etc…. It’s a big pain to seek and repair fire alarm “troubles” caused by breaks in wiring when you are trying to wrap up a commercial remodel project.
Fire Sprinkler System Safe Off
Most buildings have a fire suppression system and it’s critical to determine if the building you are working in has one and where the heads are. If the building does have a fire suppression system then you need to determine if you need to keep the system live or not throughout your project. If part or all of the building is to remain occupied then it’s going to have to remain live. You can typically shut it down during the day but that means that you are going to have to put it back under pressure EVERY night. Big tip – make sure all the work that you do holds for at least a half hour to an hour every night before you leave! You don’t have the luxury of putting it under test when you are bringing the system back up live each night so you are going to have to do a “real life” pressure test and even with a pinhole leak in the modified system you are risking a HUGE water leak event. The best thing that could happen when there is a live fire suppression system in the building that you are doing work on is trying to find an “isolation” valve so you don’t have to drain the whole system every morning! One other concern when the system is live is that when you AREN’T doing work on the fire suppression that means you can’t hit any heads while performing OTHER work or you are going to get a flood really quickly as well! If and when you are doing work like this please figure out EXACTLY where the fire suppression shut off valve (or the entire building water shut off valve if necessary) before you start any work “just in case” you need it!
Plumbing and HVAC Safe Off
Plumbing and HVAC systems have the same risks as the fire life safety systems above. The main difference is that usually these systems are a little more isolated from the building and they usually do not have to turn back on every night before you leave. Take the same precautions to disable these and make sure they don’t cause you headaches during the project. First of all, make sure they are located, and second, confirm that they are all shut off and drained or isolated to the point where there are no live systems in the part of the building where you are working. HVAC systems do not usually present as much of a hazard as plumbing in terms of risk of water damage but it is best practice (and usually a requirement of the project design) to either shut down all of the HVAC in the area or put filters at all of the return grills or ductwork so you don’t introduce construction dust to the existing (or new) HVAC system before you turn the space back over.
When a client I worked with asked me how to save money on his project after I had seen his initial remodel design and told him it would be about twice as much as I originally told him, my first comment back to him was “get rid of all of the structural changes”. Now, he happened to be a structural engineering firm, so his whole team “wanted” to design all these cool changes, but this is usually the first things I target when a client wants to save money. Want a new double height stairwell in the middle of your space? Change the location of your existing stairwell? Add a rooftop deck? Pop a few extra windows into the perimeter wall? These are all great, but just plan on them skyrocketing your cost per square foot. If you are paying attention to your TI allowance, and really watching your budget, then try (as much as possible) to NOT do any structural demolition. If you are in residential construction or real estate and you are interested in understanding how much it costs to demolish a house – take a look at this article Cost to Demolish a House.
Now, I am not talking about just normal wall demolition here. By all means take down any walls you want in your space if they don’t work with your layout, as long as they aren’t holding up the building! Now, I say all of this but in reality, we probably do a LOT of structural demolition, because spaces just aren’t exactly what a tenant is looking for and they need to tweak it in 1, 2, or 20 spots. Just keep in mind that whenever we dig into structural components of a building A) we have to make it structurally sound so that requires bringing in (and paying for) a structural engineer and B) a building is NEVER put together the way we think it is, so performing any structural modifications puts the project budget at risk – well it’s always at risk, but puts it at risk a little more than “normal”!
You don’t know what is behind your walls in your building. You think you do, your architect thinks they do, we (the general contractor) has a general idea, but at the end of the day, no one really knows what is behind that drywall (or masonry, or lathe and plaster, or FRP, or tile, or acoustical panels) until we rip it up. So first of all, this is why you should always have a responsible person onsite looking at everything as it is happening, and always why the design can probably never really get built the way it was originally intended. By all means we try like crazy to figure out what is behind those walls – we try to get as-builts, do “exploratory” holes, and even now on our projects at W.E. O’Neil, we are taking 360 degree photos to “document” everything we are putting in our walls (for new construction). However, chances that they are fully documenting this for really any projects (call over 1%) is slim to none. From a budget perspective this is where a “contingency” comes in, and usually there is a healthy discussion about who needs to carry that contingency, but I usually like to lean to our client’s side. A general contractor doesn’t own the space or have a lease in the space so normally they won’t take the risk that the space wasn’t originally built per plan (i.e. unforeseen conditions). So I always recommend that our clients carry something in terms of an owner contingency. How much you ask? I will give you my nice “cop out” answer of “it depends”. However, I usually have a general rule of thumb:
An owner contingency in a commercial remodel should have a minimum of 10% of total anticipated project costs for an interior remodel and even more than that depending on A) how good your original design was and how much your architect and engineers explored the site (think above ceilings, below ground, in the walls) and B) how old your building is and how many previous remodels have been done to it.
Floors and Subfloors
Good new flooring will totally make a new commercial remodel worth it and will help transform your space into a new “unrecognizable” updated space. What am I worried about then? The old floor and existing subfloor! Perhaps you already see “issues” with the existing floor like tiles curling up, cracks in a ceramic tile, different “patches” of carpet tiles, VCT tiles, or wood flooring in random areas? That all comes back to issues with the subfloor! Again, it feels like I enjoy telling a client that their project is going to cost more money, but at the end of the day I have just seen it happen so often that we pull up and old floor to find a horrible subfloor, that I feel like I have to mention it right now. I have seen EVERYTHING under the sun but the best piece of advice I can give when you are either looking at remodeling your space or if you are about to lease a space and are curious how much it will cost to pull the flooring out is look VERY closely at what the existing flooring is doing. If you see random patches, or see failures, then it is USALLY one of two things:
- There are moisture problems. Water is coming up through the slab (when the slab is directly on soil, called “slab-on-grade” and causing the adhesive or product to fail.
- There are underlying structural problems. The building shifted, is shifting, or is about to shift again, OR the previous owner or tenant used an underlayment that is failing and causing the flooring to fail.
Now, if this is happening, it’s not the end of the world, and the reason I am bringing it up is because it happens A LOT! Just keep in mind though that if it is happening you are going to spend anywhere from $5-$10 a square foot JUST FOR THE PRIVILEGE of putting new flooring down, even before you start! Now I am not going to go into all the wonderful details of mitigation at this time, I will save it for the “flooring” section! However, for demolition you need to know the following:
- When you are putting flooring down that needs a relatively smooth sub-floor you are going to have to at least “scrape” the previous adhesive. We usually assume this costs $.50/SF at a minimum, or up to $1/SF if you must go over it twice or use more powerful equipment.
- If the previous glue is tough to get up or you need a REALLY smooth subfloor then you need to start talking about a grind or a sandblast of existing subfloor. Now we are talking about $1.50-$3 a square foot.
- If you dig up the old flooring and find you need major floor leveling and floor prep, then this is when we start talking $5/SF
- If you dig up the old flooring and find that you need to do moisture mitigation, that tags on ANOTHER $5/SF (worst case).
To conclude this wonderfully scattered blog post; I would like to just say that starting demolishing is a very exciting time for a tenant or building owner. That means that you are about to take your space that looked amazing in the 60’s, 70’s, 80’s, 90’, or early 2000’s, and transform it into the space that looks amazing now going in the 2020’s (or if you are reading this post in the future it may ALREADY be the 2020’s!). However, it would typically be my job (as a general contractor or construction manager) to guide you in the right direction. My final advice when starting this journey or thinking about starting this journey of a commercial remodel is don’t spend every penny you have before you start, because things come up that you HAVE to address (or risk the success of your project) and it’s a lot better to address them if you have allotted money to address it. Now, if you have a good design and construction team they can try and mitigate this as much as possible, but at the end of the day construction is a tough business and it’s impossible to predict every single thing when you start ripping up your building.
Please keep in mind this article does not get into any remodel “additions” work. That requires its own full article! If you want additional information please head to my commercial remodeling blog introduction page!