Old Is New Again: Is It Worth It?

Adaptive reuse is as old as buildings, but a new appreciation for connections to the past is driving it today.

Designed by Daniel H. Burnham, the former Dime Bank Building in Detroit has been through several name changes and owners. It became the Chrysler House after the automaker moved some of its corporate functions into the building. Photo: Courtesy Bedrock Detroit

Designed by Daniel H. Burnham, the former Dime Bank Building in Detroit has been through several name changes and owners. It became the Chrysler House after the automaker moved some of its corporate functions into the building. Photo: Courtesy Bedrock Detroit

By Kenneth W. Betz, Senior Editor

Adaptive reuse isn’t new. As long as there have been buildings, we have been finding other uses for them as needs and priorities changed. Of course, there was a time when the approach to urban design and the evolution of cities was about taking things down, Melissa Dittmer, AIA, director of architecture and design for Bedrock Detroit, observed.

“I think that we have crossed a threshold to where planners and architects are now understanding there is a real importance in keeping the historical context and the historic buildings, to landmark and celebrate the history and cultural heritage of what brought the city to where we are today,” she said.

“You can’t move forward without acknowledging and understanding the past. To me that’s a big shift,” Dittmer continued. “You see it in all cities, not just Detroit, where, instead of taking things down and building anew, there is a real effort to embed historic structures and historic references into new projects. Sometimes that means real strategic machinations in the way new buildings are done so that they can incorporate historic structures that are nearby or next to them.”

“It’s not just urban planners, architects, and developers who understand the importance of preserving the cultural heritage of a building. It’s tenants, too, who are really looking for a link to the past, as well as a link to the future that represents their firm’s ideology, branding, and vision. They value the historic narratives of buildings and want that heritage tied into their spaces. Many are willing to pay the additional cost for that,” Dittmer said.

Asked if adaptive reuse and restoration were worth it, Dittmer emphatically agreed, “It’s absolutely worth it. It’s worth it for me just from a design standpoint, from a selfish single perspective, in order to have a heterogeneous city with a multitude of architectural styles. It’s positively worth it to keep and restore these historic structures for everyone else that lives and plays within the city.”

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Adaptive reuse has shifted in scale from single buildings to entire neighborhoods, cities, or regions, Dittmer thinks.

The process may also be accelerating. She cites a study about how to construct buildings, specifically parking garages, which can be adaptive within five years. “These are supportive structures that we know are going to fluctuate and evolve. We need to account for parking that we need right now but we also need to account for what that building might want to become in five years,” she said.

“Adaptive reuse of buildings is a form of sustainable urban regeneration,” according to Clay Aurell, AIA, and Josh Blumer, AIA, both principals at AB Design Studio Inc., Santa Barbara, CA.

“The term may be trendy, but the process of rehabilitating a building or a space for another use is not new. You can see transformative philosophies across industries, and this mindset is driving the escalation of adaptive-reuse architectural projects. Once a niche market, adaptive reuse has become a lexicon for architects and developers. Brownfield reclamations, urban pathway construction, repurposing a 19th-century town center into a 21st-century mixed-use development, are all adaptive reuse initiatives,” they said.

Explaining the process, Aurell and Blumer observed, “Population growth has had an impact on building availability, resulting in increased demand for space and a short supply of land. Rising land costs have changed the landscape of suburban sprawls. After the housing boom, land prices were driven up. What were once profitable projects are now difficult to keep in the black. While the per-square-foot construction costs tend to be higher than ground-up construction, adaptive reuse removes land costs from the equation, making overall capital investment still viable. As a result, there is increased activity by developers and architects to undertake rehabilitative, restorative, and adaptive reuse projects.”

 

In addition, adaptive reuse was a response to the recession. “With new development dormant and a long recovery period, developers are finding work in the form of adaptive reuse,” Aurell and Blumer said.

Adaptive reuse can reinforce older urban forms and dated buildings can be reimagined to serve new uses. The juxtaposition of old and new gives cities interesting architectural features—intriguing corners, texture, and façades, according to the AB Design principals.

The Funk Zone in Santa Barbara, CA, is an example of an adaptive reuse project that turned an old fish warehouse and processing district into an active entertainment area. “As part of AB Design Studio’s work, we reconfigured part of what was already present and added to it, discovering along the way part of the building’s history, such as existing brick and wood-truss systems. Features such as these, which are intrinsic to historic buildings, give a project a sense of authenticity that architects cannot re-create,” said Aurell and Blumer.

While putting buildings to a new use is not novel, Irena Savakova, RIBA, LEED AP BD+C, vice president, director of design, Leo A Daly, Washington, thinks there is a change in emphasis. “We have finally entered the age where people appreciate historic resources in a different way. There is a growing passion to develop new urban enclaves and the drive to preserve historic city zones by infusing new life into existing structures is clearly gaining momentum. This has been a consistent effort for a long time in Europe, where there is a greater variety of structures that have transitioned functions through the ages by preservation, adaptation, and repurposing.”

“A lot of it has to do with meeting the evolving needs and values of the consumer,” she stated. “City cores are seeing a population increase for the first time in decades. That fuels building reuse, preservation, and revitalization. Part of that is generational. Millennials don’t want to live in suburbs. They want to experience cities; they want to be mobile, but not by cars; and they want to be where everything happens. That brings life back to the historic cores of cities,” Savakova, said.

“I have a term for what I see driving through most of America. I call it Generica. It’s a pervasive blandness that comes out of this bad habit of tearing down and building new. Sustainability is now mainstream, and as young people gravitate away from Generica, they are drawn toward well-established neighborhoods with different layers of historic presence,” Savakova explained.

“With this demand shift, developers have started to pay attention,” she continued. “Brand new construction is being built to resemble old warehouses, so you’re essentially seeing developers having to fake a historical look in order to create a brand. That is fine, but it hardly represents a replacement for the exceptional value created by authentically historical buildings.”

Vacant for 40 years, the Burlington Station in Omaha received a new lease on life when TV station, ABC affiliate KETV, repurposed the building despite damage from years of neglect. Photo: Courtesy Leo A Daly, Visko Hatfield

Vacant for 40 years, the Burlington Station in Omaha received a new lease on life when TV station, ABC affiliate KETV, repurposed the building despite damage from years of neglect. Photo: Courtesy Leo A Daly, Visko Hatfield

Advantages

While restoring a building that has been vacant for some time and has seen better days may seem daunting, there are considerable advantages that vary from project to project. “A benefit of adaptive reuse includes the preservation of properties with historic value to the community, as well as transforming a blighted under-performing site into something usable that provides increased tax revenue for the city,” Aurell and Blumer said.

“In some situations, it is financially beneficial to repurpose an existing building rather than build from the ground up. This practice can potentially shorten construction timelines, should the buildings have structurally sound foundations and frameworks to begin with. Adaptive reuse is an architectural compromise between restoration and demolition. Consumers flock to these revitalized districts, where transformed buildings have become integral community spaces,” they said.

Additionally, there are federal and local incentives for preserving and re-using historic structures. Aurell and Blumer explained: “Adaptive-reuse projects involving historically registered buildings are eligible for federal tax-incentive programs known as historic-rehabilitation tax credits. State incentives include state credit subsidy pools that range from 5% to 25% of eligible costs. Finally, there are sustainability implications for adaptive reuse and building rehabilitation, as cities aim for low carbon-development footprints. Adaptive reuse extends the life of a building and reduces demolition waste. These projects are also inherently green as they involve the reuse of empty, often blighted, buildings, and most are being redeveloped to higher energy-sustainability specifications in accordance with city ordinances.”

The economic advantages of rehabilitation have been well documented, agreed Sheila Ireland, AIA, NCARB, LEED AP, senior associate, senior architect, Leo A Daly, Omaha, NE.

“Building quality is an obvious one,” she said. “For about the same investment, a rehabilitated historic building can have a lifespan of 100 years or more compared to 30 to 40 years for a new building.

“The list goes on,” she continued: “Increased property values, resource conservation, efficient utilization of infrastructure, sprawl management, and more. Preservation Green Lab’s “Older, Smaller, Better” report does a good job of laying out the benefits. Older, smaller neighborhoods simply perform better in terms of quality-of-life indicators like walkability, percentage of young residents, health of entrepreneurship and the creative economy, affordability, impact on local economy, density, and nightlife.”

From an economic perspective, property values and lease rates tend to be higher in neighborhoods with historic variety. As a developer, you get more bang for your buck. For the money you spend, you get a greater potential for payback and value and branding, Ireland added.

In recent years, Detroit has seen a lot of renovation and reuse, driven in part by an appreciation for the detailing of older buildings. “The building stock that we built from around the turn of the century to the 1930s is just exquisite in terms of material usage and detailing,” said Jeffrey Gaines, AIA, senior associate, Albert Kahn Associates Inc., Detroit. “A lot of that was not very sensitively modernized in the 1950s and 1960s, but people really appreciate those details. Oftentimes it does require a change in use of the building,” he added.

Gaines continued, “Up until the last five or six years ago, it just didn’t make economic sense to put the money back into these structures, but now with the renewed interest in commercial and especially the residential market, it does make financial sense. We’ve had some very insightful developers come through and they’re making it work.

“I don’t think we’re doing anything different in Detroit than what you’re seeing in other big cities, except for the fact that Detroit has a lot of very unique building stock that was opulent at the time it was built, certainly far more opulent than anything we can afford to build today. Some cities, say in Southern California, for example, did not have that rich stock of buildings to draw from. We just had more that were still intact and readily available to be developed,” Gaines said.

Challenges

Adaptive reuse, of course, is not without challenges. Kenneth Herbart, senior project architect, Kahn Associates Inc., cites the Detroit News Building, designed by founder Albert Kahn in the early 1900s, as an example. A parking garage across the street had been completely conditioned when it was built, but the new owner didn’t want to condition the deck. It had to be opened up. However, since the building had a historical designation, the architect couldn’t “just remove the windows and do whatever we wanted to do,” Herbart recounted.

As a solution, the glass was removed and replaced with a mesh, giving from the exterior a sense that the glass was still there but giving enough ventilation to satisfy code requirements.

“We worked closely with the local historic review board, as well our state historic preservation office,” Herbart said. “You just need to get involved early on and get a feel for what aspects of the design they’ll have issue with.”

“Other restrictions associated with renovations are no different for historic buildings than for non-historic buildings,” commented Leo A Daly’s Sheila Ireland. “The owner may have to adapt to the existing floor plan, but those same challenges often give birth to wonderful, creative solutions and add uniqueness to the design. Often the unique character of a space, combined with creative problem-solving, result in a space that is superior to a new space.”

Not only is adaptive reuse common in much renovation and restoration, the projects, more often than not, are mixed-use designs, Gaines and Herbart observed.

Developers are finding that mixed-use projects are a better investment, Gaines observed. There is a “lot of interest from people wanting to live in the city so it’s nice to be able to have the components there for them,” he said. For example, amenities such as a dry cleaners, a small grocery, and smaller retail spaces are nice to have.”

“The State of Michigan is really interested in placemaking, to the extent that it may become one of the factors that guide some of the funding,” Gaines said. “The state is looking at not just one building but multiple buildings whose interactions are interrelated.”

A lot of older buildings were designed for mixed-use anyway, with retail and service establishments on the ground floor, Gaines observed. “We don’t really struggle too much with that,” he said.

Beyond economics and market considerations, some architects believe there is an additional role they should play. “We have a huge responsibility as a design community to educate our clients and the public to push forward more responsible use of historic resources. Architects have the expertise and ability to assess historic structures and convert them into viable developments, but it takes both energy and effort. It’s up to us to demonstrate the economic benefits of adaptive reuse, and to show how it can be done in a way that respects the client’s financial goals, while preserving and enhancing what’s unique and valuable about our cities, said Leo A Daly’s Savakova.

The former Dime Bank vault is a central feature of dPOP!’s offices in the former bank building. dPOP!, a workplace design firm, is one of the Quicken Loans family of companies that have been involved in much renovation and adaptive reuse in Detroit. Photo: Courtesy Bedrock Detroit

The former Dime Bank vault is a central feature of dPOP!’s offices in the former bank building. dPOP!, a workplace design firm, is one of the Quicken Loans family of companies that have been involved in much renovation and adaptive reuse in Detroit. Photo: Courtesy Bedrock Detroit

It Was The Pits

dPOP! is one of the Quicken Loans family of companies that have been involved in much renovation and adaptive reuse in Detroit in recent years, so it’s only fitting that dPOP! located its offices in the basement of the Chrysler House, formerly known as the Dime Bank Building.

Designed by Daniel H. Burnham, the building was renovated in 2002 into a Class A office building, but tenants failed to come in sufficient numbers and Quicken Loans founder Dan Gilbert added the building to his portfolio in 2011 through his Rock Ventures LLC company. In 2012 the Chrysler Group leased nearly 33,000 sq. ft. to move some of its corporate functions into the Dime Building.

One might have thought that dPOP! could have moved in with little muss and fuss, but the basement and subbasement that formerly housed the Dime Bank’s vaults and mechanical equipment apparently had not been part of the 2002 renovation and was just what its location suggested—a basement where the management team had stored building artifacts they were reluctant to throw out but didn’t have a purpose.

To make matters worse, the elevator no longer went to the lowest floors of the building. To remove the collected history would have meant carrying it up multiple flights of stairs, so it stayed where it was.

The basement and subbasement extend under the sidewalk, and lack of maintenance over the years resulted in leaks when it rained or snowed. The first task was sealing up the envelope.

A pit area for mechanical equipment that extended into the subbasement was partially filled in to create a sunken pit for meetings or the twice-weekly yoga classes in the dPOP! offices. The wood flooring in the pit was reclaimed from Detroit homes that were demolished. Photo: Courtesy Bedrock Detroit

A pit area for mechanical equipment that extended into the subbasement was partially filled in to create a sunken pit for meetings or the twice-weekly yoga classes in the dPOP! offices. The wood flooring in the pit was reclaimed from Detroit homes that were demolished. Photo: Courtesy Bedrock Detroit

“When we first walked through it, there was mud and water that had accumulated over the years, and mechanical systems that had been abandoned for more smaller, more efficient systems,” said Melissa Price, CEO and Lady of the Vault, dPOP!

The sidewalk extension, however, was not entirely a liability; it allowed installation of skylights to bring daylight into the otherwise dark basement.

The discarded but set-aside artifacts in the basement turned out to be a treasure trove of renovation materials. All of the wood doors in the new dPOP! space were original to the building. Brass elevator doors, found in a pile in the basement now serve as sliding doors to the data center, hiding the gray fire-code doors. Marble water fountains were saved.

Some of the safety-deposit boxes were repurposed as gorgeous steel tables for staff meetings. As much of the floor was kept as possible, and the columns still show original sketches, labels, and measurements put there by the original workers.

While hot pink is dPOP!’s signature color, it is paired with deeper, richer colors that lend themselves to the patina of the safety-deposit boxes and brass doors. One of the spaces, however, is bright white so as not to distract customers who are viewing color samples of flooring or wallcovering for their own projects.

A pit area for mechanical equipment that extended into the subbasement was partially filled in to create a sunken pit for meetings or the twice-weekly yoga classes. The wood flooring in the pit was reclaimed from Detroit homes that were demolished.

The massive vault door remains exactly where it was, proving that not everything can or should change.

The design solution focused the limited budget on the most important structural and historic features, while celebrating KETV 7’s role as a news outlet. Courtesy Leo A Daly, Visko Hatfield

The design solution focused the limited budget on the most important structural and historic features, while celebrating KETV 7’s role as a news outlet. Courtesy Leo A Daly, Visko Hatfield

Railroad Station Back On Track

In the heyday of railroad travel, train stations were ornate, magnificent wonders to travelersAs rail travel declined, they were gradually abandoned. No one knew quite what to do with them.

Designed in the Greek Revival style by Omaha architect Thomas R. Kimball, the Burlington Station in Omaha, NE, opened in 1898 and saw the last passenger service in 1974. The building remained vacant for nearly 40 years. Things changed when the neighborhood showed signs of reviving and local ABC television affiliate KETV, decided to move in.

The long vacancy had resulted in extensive water damage and vandalism, according to Leo A Daly architects of Omaha. “For years, four burst interior downspouts poured rainwater into each corner of the main waiting room and the rooms below. The masonry walls were cracked, bleeding mortar, and covered in green mold. Below, on the track level, freeze thaw had caused portions of the 1898 cement tile floor to heave and collapse into pipe tunnels. While the main-level steel structure was in remarkably sound condition, the steel structure at the track level was, in some areas, rusted through to a lacy appearance. Plaster finishes had collapsed, or been removed,” according to a brochure compiled by the architectural firm.

With the television news studio located less than 50 feet from an active rail line, acoustics at the KETV studios were a challenge. A box-within-a-box solution provided vibration isolation from the existing structure at a reasonable cost. Courtesy Leo A Daly, Visko Hatfield

With the television news studio located less than 50 feet from an active rail line, acoustics at the KETV studios were a challenge. A box-within-a-box solution provided vibration isolation from the existing structure at a reasonable cost. Courtesy Leo A Daly, Visko Hatfield

The design solution focused the limited budget on the most important structural and historic features, while celebrating KETV 7’s role as a news outlet. “The design acts as a physical expression of journalistic integrity, allowing the building to tell its remarkable story,” according to Daly. In the main waiting room, one can see evidence of each chapter. The white glazed brick and mosaic tile floor remains from the 1898 design. Fluted marble trim and clay tile infill illustrate the extent of the 1930- and 1955-era renovations. The absence of plaster finishes and the presence of graffiti acknowledge the period of abandonment. New materials stick to the basics, in neutral colors, allowing the stories of past and present to take center stage, the brochure continues.

With the television news studio located less than 50 feet from an active rail line, acoustics were a challenge. Following acoustical testing, Leo A Daly worked closely with project manager and owner representative, Broadcast Building Company (BBC), to design a box-within-a-box solution that provided vibration isolation from the existing structure at a reasonable cost. The resulting studio space is dead quiet, even with a train right outside the historic walls, Daly said.

Click here for a bonus Q&A with the contributors to this article.

Click here for the Ken’s View column for the January/February issue.


datacache— The Urban Land Institute

— Older, Smaller, Better (Preservation Leadership Forum)

— Congress for New Urbanism

— Stewart Brand

— New As Renewal: A Framework For Adaptive Reuse In The Sustainable Paradigm

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