Repurposing an old building

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repurposing an old building
Repurposing an old building is hard work but worth it.

Repurposing an old building into a modern dental practice creates a unique and inviting work space. But there can be problems on the way. By Kerryn Ramsey

Dr Tynan Corbett’s former leased practice in Woodend, Victoria, was just across the road from the local red-brick post office. As a landmark of the town in the centre of the Macedon Ranges, the 1905 post office boasts architectural elements, such as chimney stacks and half-timbered gable-ends. For Dr Corbett, it was a truly beautiful sight.

When he discovered that the post office was on the market, he could see the potential. “I always thought it would be a great dental surgery. I like the idea of using old buildings and restoring them to their former glory. It has now had its 100-year renovation and that will hopefully keep it going for another 100 years.”

Undoubtedly, the idea of sensitively transforming a history-soaked building is very appealing. However, it’s important to be aware of all the risks—and costs—that may be involved.

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Heritage issues in repurposing an old building

When Dr Corbett decided to take on the project, he soon realised he would need much more than just a competent builder. He commissioned Covet Homes for the build and Optima Healthcare Group for the fit-out. But that was just the start—Dr Corbett and the building team needed to consult with a raft of council officers, as well as research the history and architecture of the build. Dr Corbett took the initiative and engaged the heritage society to help

According to Optima’s Damian Earl, there are various limitations when sympathetically converting a historic edifice into a modern, high-tech practice. “The new design has to maintain a heritage look and feel within the building,” says the project’s director who had to be advised by a specialist heritage consultant. For instance, as a large window at the front had rotted and had to be replaced, a new window was custom-built to match the original element. “On top of that, we had to do a lot of work to maintain the structural integrity of the building,” he says. All the services, electricals and plumbing were replaced. New stumps and subfloor framing were added to most of the building and new timber flooring was laid. 

New delivery

Just like Dr Corbett, Dr Yvonne Poon felt equally passionate when she spotted a dilapidated post office—this time in the suburb of Gladesville in Sydney’s Northern Suburbs. The practitioner was thrilled when the property—operating as a schnitzel restaurant—came on the market. She could see the potential of bringing back the original beauty of the property, complemented by high-tech equipment and modern consult rooms. 

Dr Poon turned to Perfect Practice which had already redesigned her previous practice, led by the director of project consulting, Peter Arnot. The first stage of designing Gladesville Orthodontics was to demolish and remove piles of catering equipment, a freezer and a bar. Arnot and Dr Poon could then see the bones of the 1920 build, which boasts a sweeping timber staircase and a delicate leadlight window. 

While a staircase can add a dramatic flair to the interior, it may also cause complications during a renovation. All elements have to pass the national Disability (Access to Premises – Buildings) Standards 2010, that improve the accessibility and safety of new and upgraded buildings.

“In situations like this, you often have to compromise between the disability consultant and the heritage consultant,” explains Arnot. The staircase, for example, needed to be the correct width. “It meant that the original stairs are only used for staff upstairs.”

Council hiccups

While the build of Gladesville Orthodontics took just 10 weeks, the early stages—finalising the development application—took 12 months. “This process was one of the biggest challenges,” says Arnot. 

“Although the original elements had already changed, such as the timber flooring, we still weren’t allowed to touch anything on the exterior of the building. The exterior signage needed to reflect the 1920s look so we had to follow similar shades and designs of old signages, but with new content.”

For many practitioners, it’s difficult to nominate an end-of-lease date while waiting for the application to be finalised. Fortunately for Dr Poon, Gladesville Orthodontics was just around the corner from her previous clinic, and she was well prepared to relocate as soon as the renovation was completed.

Price hike when repurposing an old building

Any practitioners keen to embark on renovating a heritage-listed property should be prepared for some additional costs. As Dr Corbett says, “There was a lot of surprises when introducing sympathetic elements—for example, the cornices and skirts were three to four times the cost of regular ones.”

According to Damian Earl, “When considering renovating and fitting out a heritage building, we advise our clients to bear in mind the many hidden issues can cost time and money to overcome.” 

Despite this prospective price rise, the warmth of an old-school interior appeals to many clients. “Patients respond very well; they tend to love what has been achieved,” says Dr Corbett. “I also received a nice card at the opening from a local who thanked me for restoring the outside and keeping the inside in character.”  


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