Repurpose abandoned buildings for climate resilience

THE construction of a new structure plays a pivotal part in high energy consumption while demolition generates a huge amount of waste.

Both activities involve the establishment of a functional building that makes a city work. Unfortunately, buildings contribute to the current alarming issue which is climate change and global warming as they use more energy than any other single industry.

Since our world is currently facing this crisis, constructing green buildings serves as a mitigation strategy to slow down the effects of climate change. An environmentally-friendly or green building constructed alongside renewable energy projects aims to protect the environment. It comprises the whole process of the structure, starting from planning, designing, constructing, operations and renewal.

Green buildings are increasingly becoming a hot property in Malaysia, with more Malaysians wanting to live life a little bit more "eco-friendly" and harmless to the environment. Green developments are springing up across the country as developers seek to meet the demand for environmentally-friendly properties.

Therefore, repurposing and maximising those existing or abandoned buildings are the most effective strategies in reducing carbon emissions which is an important step in restricting climate disruptions. This process is called adaptive reuse where existing buildings are reused for a purpose other than what they were originally built for.

Every city and town in the world has dozens, hundreds, even thousands of abandoned and partially occupied buildings. Malaysia, itself, has a lot of abandoned and nearly obsolete buildings that have so much potential in becoming a standard green building.

However, the number of such buildings keeps on increasing. In some cases, millions worth of heritage and pre-war buildings, that are known to be commercial and residential properties, are left unoccupied.

There are many factors that contribute to buildings being abandoned in Malaysia, one of the most pertinent is partly due to weak maintenance.

For heritage buildings, maintenance or refurbishment, needs to follow a strict procedure in keeping their originality intact, especially those recognised by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco). And, maintenance work costs a lot, beyond what people may think.

Billions of ringgit are allocated for mega projects but less for maintenance. Constructing new malls and skyscrapers seems to be more profitable than conserving them even though these buildings feature cultural and historical values that can create a character for the city. Malls can be seen as a work opportunity for locals but not for foreign workers.

Another issue encountered in order to save abandoned buildings, especially private properties, is difficulty in tracking the owners. It becomes a problem when there are many names in the land title or the inheritance is passed down to many names in different generations. Not only that, some rightful owners could have either migrated, passed away or cannot be traced at all.

People need to know and be aware that abandoned buildings bring more harm than good to the land value. Risk of vandalism, thefts and such structures being turned into drug dens, are only a small part of the aftermath that people have been exposed to, hindering the possibility of resale and revitalisation of the property in the future.

Some abandoned buildings, especially retail or commercial buildings, pose serious concerns regarding improper disposal of chemicals like inks, dyes, grease and oil. They can cause soil and groundwater contamination that affect the buildings themselves as well as surrounding properties.

Flash floods can exacerbate mould issues, causing excessive surface water runoff that affects waterways such as ponds, streams or rivers. These show how badly abandoned buildings can affect the environment.

Abandoned buildings that are conserved as part of the green building process can also create memorable monuments that could bring zest to city life and become its landmark.

Many youths are aware of the value brought by abandoned buildings. Some even demand for better utilisation so that they can bring benefits, especially for hobbyists. Reusing by implementing the safety features and, at the same time, keeping the architecture intact, will enhance its aesthetic value.

The buildings can be repurposed as cultural activity centres, such as spaces for art, history and education. East Colfax Art Gallery & Studio in Colorado, United States, is one of the successful repurpose works as it was once an abandoned building that operated as a liquor store for decades. It went from a drug addiction place to one that provides low-cost and even free art classes for the community.

Sentul Depot, one of the famous reuse efforts by YTL Land to restore a century-old inoperative railway workshop into the Kuala Lumpur Performing Arts Centre (klpac), has been supporting the local arts community.

Not only that, there is an initiative by youths in Sipitang district, Sabah, to transform a half-a-decade abandoned building into a mini library. It is a one-stop reading centre under the Junjung Kitani project that aims to nurture the reading habit among the youths of Sindumin during their pastime. Such efforts need to be highlighted and emulated to maximise the use of abandoned buildings.

There should be a law for authorities to force-auction abandoned properties. If the abandoned buildings fall under the heritage building category, the government should protect them at all costs as required under the National Heritage Act 2005 (Act 645). This act aims to protect and preserve the nation's cultural and natural heritage. It covers a wide range of heritage items, including buildings and structures of historical and architectural significance.

In addition, the local authorities should come up with concrete plans to tackle this issue with owners who just view their abandoned property as frozen or dead assets. Since land is under state control, the state government should work out a mechanism, such as imposition of vacancy tax which has been formulated by the Ministry of Local Government and Development on owners who have abandoned their property for a certain period.

If owners cannot be tracked or have fail to pay the tax, the government has the power to seize them and make use of the abandoned properties to address the shortfalls of land development.

As the world is moving towards sustainability and climate change mitigation, reusing the existing sustainable buildings forms a viable option to minimise environmental impacts.

Various stakeholders, particularly property owners, local authorities and even financial institutions, need to think how best to reuse abandoned buildings for future redevelopment and space maximization and, at the same time, help reduce the impact of the climate crisis.

The writer is a research analyst (intern) at Institut Masa Depan Malaysia (MASA).

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of the New Straits Times

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