Giving a once-glorious building a second lease on life can be some of the most exciting work an architect, developer or city government pursues. The end result can be creative, character-imbued projects that connect communities to their history and become statement destinations. They’re also the ultimate recycling job, both good for the environment and helpful in curbing urban sprawl.
Many different viewpoints come to the table during an adaptive reuse project – from the developer, architect and city planners to historical societies and community leaders. With so many interests involved, the only way these projects ever succeed is by practicing the subtle art of give and take. Because there are never simple, black and white solutions. Adapting a building architecture from the standards of 1938 so that it functions today is no small feat. It involves respecting and restoring the integrity of the building. And it also means creating a place that functions in a modern world, from a technical, community and commercial standpoint. All perspectives count; all need their fair say; and all have to give to get. Because architecture firms are usually at the center of the development process, I offer a few observations from practice about how to help these projects succeed.
1. Be Honest
There always will be truthful disputes during a project, and they always deserve to be handled honestly. Something as small as a staircase width can turn into a significant point of conflict. And with the developer clock ticking on the budget, there is always a sense of urgency to move things along. Despite the pressure, it’s important to share the same information with all the stakeholders. The trust built by doing this will go a lot further in the long run, because it will never just be one issue that needs resolution. And issues will arise from conceptual design to final certificate of occupancy.
2. There are No Bad Guys
It’s important to remember that everyone is on the same team, even if they see the project through a different lens. Developers may seem overly focused on the revenue generation aspect of the project. The historical society may feel as if they are the last stand in preserving something that’s irreplaceable. City planners may appear intently focused on upholding building standards so chaos doesn’t reign in construction. But each stakeholder is key to the project, and none of them are the villains. Building a sense of empathy for each other’s positions often helps pave the path to compromise.
3. Compromise is Key
Very few, likely no, buildings from the 1920s had rooftop bars. And yet, in restoring a 1920s building to function as a successful commercial project today, a rooftop amenity space may be necessary. That’s because this feature will attract more patrons as part of a mixed-use development and typically provide a greater return on investment. While this might seem like a purely developer-driven mindset, this also opens up the possibility for more of the public to enjoy and experience a historical jewel. How does this issue get resolved if one part of the team entrenches and refuses to compromise? It won’t. The key is to listen and be reasonable. If everyone wants the project to succeed, there is always a compromise position.
4. Feed the Information Pipeline
During construction, there can be surprises – both good and bad. By opening up a wall, you can find a problem that involves an esthetic change to the design. It’s important to keep everyone abreast of issues and changes as soon as they happen. Bring everyone back to the table as soon as possible to find a resolution. It goes back to the trust thing.
5. When in Doubt, Visit the Building
In historical projects, the photographic material can be scarce and perhaps limited to two or three pictures. Decisions on areas of dispute can’t be made in this kind of vacuum. I always bring the various parties to the site to walk through it and see what a change will mean. In situ, things come into much sharper perspective – the flow and space relationships are clearer. That’s when decisions are usually easier to make and more creative solutions are possible.
The Process Pays Off
In Chicago, we have a vast treasure of adaptive reuse buildings that contribute to the fabric and character of the city. We’ve recently worked on three of them: the elevated hotel brand, Found Hotel, in a 1920s cast-iron building; the Plymouth Building converted to co-living type housing; and the old Waterman Building, a pen and paper company redeveloped for a boutique chain, Sonder. Each one had, or will have, it’s moments of debate and dispute. Each will test the subtle art of give and take with its stakeholders. But the key for me is this: when you restore a piece of ancient pottery, you are introducing something new to retain the character of the original piece. The same is true in an adaptive reuse project. The idea is not to keep the piece exactly the same as before, because that would be a near impossible goal. The idea is to adapt and bring it back to life, so new generations can continue to enjoy and experience the building.