Use an integrated design approach to pump new life into discarded buildings and boost local economies.
By Joshua Zinder AIA, NCARB, LEED AP, Joshua Zinder Architecture + Design
Economically and sustainably speaking, adaptive reuse is a winning strategy to consider when developing a project. Empty or decommissioned structures have enormous intrinsic value. Provided that an existing structure can be appropriately adapted to a new typology, owners and developers can save on construction through reduced total materials costs and shortened timetables. In terms of sustainability, reuse of timber, concrete, steel, and other materials represents significant reductions in the embedded energy and carbon footprint associated with the project.
Learn more about adaptive reuse in our interview with Joshua Zinder.
Adaptive reuse can offer significant aesthetic and ethical advantages, too, as a tool for preserving buildings with architectural or historical significance. Often, older buildings have been built to last and, though currently underused, remain perfectly serviceable. A limited number of these projects may even qualify for historical tax credits, depending on landmark status. Even if no credits are possible, there is much to be gained from keeping a building that is iconic and possibly beloved by the surrounding community. Preserving a landmark can restore a measure of public pride, and reopening its doors can support local economic-development efforts.
Adaptive-reuse projects also carry significant challenges that must be addressed by experienced design and construction teams if benefits are to be realized. These challenges include:
• Retrofitting — Typically involves updating structure and infrastructure for the new use. However, this may prove costly or, in some cases, impractical.
• Environmental challenges — These may include the presence of lead, mold, and asbestos in older buildings, among other issues.
• Local building codes and zoning ordinances — Legal factors may limit options for changing the use of a specific property.
The key to success is to take an integrated approach to design, i.e., an approach that brings together all members of the project team early in the process. Integrated design increases the likelihood that the client can take on challenging adaptive-reuse projects with significant success. Previously decommissioned structures may range widely in typology. In our practice, we’ve adapted a gas station, a tannery, and a historic Masonic temple, among others. The goals for new uses range just as widely, from hospitality settings to offices to multifamily residences. For each of these, the design team works to generate realistic, cost-effective solutions in collaboration with experienced engineers and contractors.
Cooking with fire
Most recently, we were challenged with adapting a defunct service station for use as an upscale restaurant focused on wood-fired pizza. Unlike typical fueling structures, this was a rather elegant example of the modernist style from the 1930s. As architects with expertise in hospitality projects and a love of early modernism, we were thrilled to help preserve and reuse this building. Several obstacles stood in the way, primarily drive-through service bays and garage doors that proved to be awkward elements for a food service venue, especially in a temperate Mid-Atlantic climate.
To address this, the design closed off three garage bays at the rear of the building, integrating a facade of certified cedar across and over the portals, which were enclosed with storefront glazing. On the front, specialized doors take advantage of the original garage openings, extending the dining area during warmer weather to an exterior patio with outdoor seating protected by a new awning structure. In effect, our redesign reversed the front and back of the facility: where the gas station had fronted onto the main road, the entrance to the restaurant instead faces a neighboring shopping center.
Living in history
Part of the beauty of adaptive reuse is allowing the rich patina of age and the former uses of the structures to become part of the new architectural story. This was true of a former Masonic Temple that is being converted into a 10-unit apartment building. The landmark structure, now part of a new historic district in Princeton, NJ, will retain its classic and rather restrained character as it becomes ten market-rate apartments, with a careful restoration of its original brick coloration and stucco work. To create the desired number of apartment units while retaining the building’s historical appearance from the street, the design inserts an additional fourth floor under the existing roof and adds a stair tower to the rear. The project, currently under construction, is a LEED For Homes candidate seeking Gold certification.
Stained wood and dirty brick
Interior renovations present their own challenges and opportunities for historic adaptive-reuse projects. For a new workplace in a former tannery in Yardley, PA, the design team found wood decking below the roof that had been stained by years of hide-tanning processes. The rich and deep, dark wood tones have become a signature of the headquarter offices for the client, which makes educational and performance programs for the high-tech life-sciences industry.
In other projects, there have been equally challenging opportunities that make not only economic but social and environmental sense. One client is transforming a garage into a community-based thrift shop. Another is converting an old power station, which once served a large office park, into a regional shopping destination to anchor a major new master plan—this in spite of its lack of windows and other openings.
The solutions found for clients are often directly applicable to other adaptive-reuse projects. There are thousands of underused buildings in the United States that represent the potential to create value and save on project costs. A few successful adaptive-reuse projects help lead the way. They can inspire creative problem solving and encourage other owners to consider how conversions can work for their own future growth.
Joshua Zinder, AIA, is founding partner of Joshua Zinder Architecture + Design (JZA+D), an architecture and interiors practice headquartered in Princeton, NJ. The firm’s international portfolio includes commercial, hospitality, retail, and residential projects, as well as product, furniture, and graphic designs.