New Life for Old Buildings: Adaptive Reuse

New Life for Old Buildings: Adaptive Reuse

Jonathan Bardelline: Welcome to Green Biz Radio.

Kirsten Ritchie is the director of sustainable design with Gensler, the international architecture, design and planning firm based in San Francisco. Today, she talks with Associate Editor Leslie Guevarra about adaptive reuse — a practice that gives new life to old buildings.

Leslie Guevarra:
Kirsten Ritchie, welcome to Green Biz Radio. Thank you for joining us today.

Kirsten Ritchie:
Well, thank you, Leslie, for having me. I'm looking forward to our conversation.

LG: Please talk to us about adaptive reuse. Why are we hearing more and more about this strategy these days?

KR: Well, certainly, I'd love to chat about it with you. But what I'd first would like to do for our listening audience is to have them understand what adaptive reuse is. Or when we use that term, what we believe is.

Adaptive reuse is where you're actually taking an existing building and you're repositioning its function. So for example, you have a situation where you had an old manufacturing plant and you're transforming it to use as a commercial office. We have that example right here in our offices in San Francisco where we are located in the old Hills Brothers Coffee Building and it was originally a coffee plant built in the turn of the century. Now it has wonderful commercial offices in it.

Another example would be for our Ferry Building, which of course, which was originally built as a terminal for all the ferries that were plowing the Bay. And now it is a wonderful market hall.

So when talk about adaptive reuse, that's what we mean. We mean taking a building and really repurposing it for use that is popular and needed in today's marketplace.

So why are we hearing so much about adaptive reuse? You see it in the newspapers, of course a lot on the design magazines, a lot in the development area.

And the reason for that is first of all, we have a huge amount of existing building stock and we need to be smarter about using it. Particularly if you look at the older buildings, they have wonderful bones from a design perspective. They have high floor-to-floor ceiling heights that allow us to bring in a lot of natural daylight. It allows for good circulation systems, it allows you to optimize how you set up your lighting systems.

And of course, the buildings themselves are pretty strong, sturdy buildings. They've been around so long and they have a lot of materials in them and you want to take advantage of that.

Also, buildings in particular that were built in the earlier part of the century were designed to optimize their performance in what we call the passive state. That is, being able to take advantage of solar orientation and wind and natural ventilation because we didn't have such reliance that we do now on mechanical systems for our comfort. So they're very smartly designed buildings.

The only thing is that they're use or what they were originally designed for is no longer needed. And so what you now want to do is say how can I take this building that's, for example, plunked down in the middle of a city, an old manufacturing plant, and take advantage of it because we need housing or we need offices or we need hotels. And can we use these buildings to provide that function?

And the answer is absolutely yes. And so we're really looking to get so much smarter about repositioning and reusing and adapting the use of these buildings to meet needs that we have in the marketplace right now.

LG: Now, we're talking about ways to transform the built environment. And it sounds like this is part of the same extended family of strategies that could include industrial infills and retrofits. How is adaptive reuse different? Or is it different?

KR: It's part of the whole package. What you do want to have from a green perspective, sustainability perspective, to really make your cities or any area environment, you need to have good density and you need to have mixtures of uses.

Infill is a situation where you already have low density and you're trying to increase the density. In the case of brownfield redevelopment, you've had industrial activities that have contaminated the surrounding environments and you need to clean them up. And unfortunately, in many cases, that means you have to bring down the buildings themselves because they've been quite contaminated and you have to address the underlying soils.

In the case of adaptive reuse, you've got a building, you've got good bones, but its use doesn't really fit with what's growing up around it and so you can modify that by again saying, well, what do we need here? Are we in an area that's heavily commercial and maybe we need to have more housing? Are we in an area that is heavy in residential, but potentially we need more market space or we need more retail, or we need more entertainment space, and can we use buildings for that purpose?

KR: The other thing, too, what you're looking at from an adaptive reuse perspective is saying, if we really want to do something about our energy consumption and we really want to do something about the carbon issue, we have to get, we have to improve the performance of the existing building stock big time. We have over 300 billion square feet of buildings in the United States that are already built and we have a lot of great green rating systems that are out there kind of more focused on new construction.

To get our energy down, we've got to go after those 300 billion square feet of existing building and by going into an existing building, adapting its reuse, improving its performance, being smarter about how you manage — for example, manage daylight and provide thermal comfort, we can significantly reduce the energy consumption associated with the operating of that building as well.

So there are multiple benefits to be derived from taking existing building stock and adapting use to both benefit the community as well as benefit the environment.

LG: Can any firm, big or small, take on a project like this?

KR: Oh, absolutely because the reality is the size of the adaptive reuse projects themselves range tremendously. One fun example is up in the Northwest area where they've taken a lot of schools, small schools, and they've adapted them and turned them into inns.

That's on one scale. On another scale, you have big the Ferry Plaza project. You have another example is a big project that we worked on in Chicago, actually. It's our offices, it's three department stores that are linked together to provide now commercial offices. These were all built in the 1930s and 1940s.

And it's interesting because you can actually see the variation of architecture across the building, but by being smart about how you design them, how you link them, how you fit them out, you provide a seamless experience and yet you're linking very different architectures.

So it really goes from the smallest project of even 100 or 1,000 square feet to hundreds of thousands of square feet when you're talking about fitting out old factories.

LG: That's incredible flexibility. Now, can you give us an idea of how this would work? How can all this be put into action and how can a firm take a project like this on?

KR: It starts with passion of the client and what the client is interested in doing. Kimpton is a great example where they really focus on building their hotels in existing buildings. And taking, whether it's a commercial office building or an old factory and converting it out into a hotel. Now, clearly they have a lot of experience with it now and they're getting smarter and better and know things to watch for.

Once you have the decision that you say yes, we like the building, we like the location, it's going to meet the needs that we are looking for — then it's a question of really saying, OK, you've got to go and you've got start doing the hard nuts and bolts; taking the measurements. What really do you have to work with? What do the bones look like? In many cases, you're peeling away decades of excess wallboard and all kinds of things — whether it's paints, in some cases, asbestos. You have to be concerned about what environmental hazards may be in some of these older buildings. Do you have PCB transformers that are still in the building? So you have to kind of get the inventory of that and take care of that.

Look to see for the existing heating and cooling equipment. Is it still operational? Can you retrofit it and modify it or are you really going to need to put in a whole new system. So doing the inventory of what it takes.

And then looking at all the different options and saying how can we really improve this space? What do we want to get at from a daylight perspective? From a comfort perspective? From an acoustical perspective? All those attributes have to come into play in how you lay out the space that you're going to be using. How you provide for entry and exit. How you provide for a lot of the common things that one has to address when you're designing buildings of fire (and) life safety, of course.

LG: What are the challenges or concerns for firms taking on these sorts of projects? Is it a case of people perhaps having great passion but not quite having their ideas in alignment as to what they have on hand and what they want to do with it? For example, have you ever had a client who walks into a situation and goes, well, I really want to do this. And you go through the steps with them and you help, if you will, manage what they want to do, so it's a better fit.

KR: Well, one of the issues you always have to deal with is the issue of cost and people's perception is, oh, well, I already have the existing building, so fitting it out is going to be cheaper than if I built something new. And as you know, we all had that experience when we do a home remodel and you realize, oh, oh.

LG: Exactly.
KR: So you know, that's No. 1. It's just like, setting realistic expectations on the part of the client both from a cost perspective as well as a schedule perspective.

You have to when you're dealing with existing buildings; you are dealing with a much higher set of unknowns than you're dealing with in a new building because you don't know. You don't necessarily have a great record of what really has been done to the building over the course of its life in terms of retrofits. You don't know what they've really done in terms of changing windows or changing in the ceilings or punched holes someplace that's not on plans to provide for staircases or close them off.

So having those kinds of unknowns makes things a little bit trickier and of course, can always affect schedules. So you have to be more cognizant of that and you have to build that into your plan.

But the ultimate deliverable, or the benefit at the end when you see these spaces and how they come together, it's like, well, this is a no-brainer. Of course we need to do it. So it's always keeping, setting out what the criteria are, being realistic about the cost, the schedule. Having a system for which how you're going to address the unknowns that become exposed and such. And design it in such a way that you can accommodate them. Right?

So the flexibility and design and the flexibility at construction process is really important.

LG: Are there some stars in some of the things that you've done? Just stand-out projects that you want to take a moment to tell us about and that we can tell listeners about so if they travel around the country, they can go, oh, yeah! That's one of those projects.

KR: Well, I mean, we have a lot of them. Gensler really started working on the commercial and on the interiors of buildings and so as a result, we've been doing kind of adaptive reuse for 40 plus years. So wherever you have their No. 1, just look for where a Gensler office is because chances are, it's part of an adaptive reuse project.

But some of the really interesting ones, I mentioned earlier like the Hills Brothers project here in San Francisco, which is on the corner of Harrison and Embarcadero, right near the foot of the Bay Bridge. A beautiful, beautiful old brick building, so of course there you have the challenges of dealing with masonry and needing to reinforce. It's also somewhat historic and so we have to deal with the issues of single pane glass.

But if you look and you see what's been done in terms of that space, with the kind of retail on the ground level: we've got Starbucks, we've got a couple of restaurants. And then the commercial office space is really quite beautiful.

Another project that's recently actually just gone out is Center on Halstead, which is in Chicago. And that is an interesting mixed use, adaptive reuse where again, it was an old retail department store and it's been turned into a very lively community center as well as a Whole Foods market. And that's another neat project to look at.

You have the — as I mentioned, the Kimpton projects. We're working on one right now with them in Pittsburgh. It's the Architects' Museum. And that's another great place that you go that demonstrates kind of how you use adaptive reuse in the hospitality marketplace.

So those are some things to look around. In many cases, if you go into kind of the old downtown areas of cities or where there were industrial areas, you've got these great old brick or masonry buildings. You can often find wonderful examples of adaptive reuse.

LG: Great. Now, what top of mind thoughts would you like to leave listeners with about green building and adaptive reuse?

KR: Well, I think the first thing is to think of adaptive reuse is really the ultimate in terms of green building because you are taking full advantage of the materials that are there. You also have the history of the place which certainly speaks to green building and building the sense of community which is so important from a sustainable perspective.

It has its challenges; there are those people saying, oh, it's so much easier to just tear it down and build something new. But I think you should always look at a building first and say hey, is this appropriate? Can we adapt the reuse of this building to deliver what we want? Or do we really have to go the brutal step of tearing it down and building something new?

I think it's being creative about space. Don't think that we're just going to take a space, for example, if you need something for office, and slap a bunch of offices against the windows so you don't get light coming in. It speaks to needing to be adaptive in how you approach that particular market. And again, whether it's office, or if you looked at like, for example, the Ferry Plaza and how it's a market but it really is this constellation of all the little stalls and how you make that work. So it's not like a big old supermarket with a certain formulaic approach.

You have to be very creative. To be successful, I think the most successful adaptive reuse projects are those that really have allowed a lot of creativity and that creativity to be able to show through in the design and more importantly, the experience for the visitor.

LG: Wonderful. Kirsten, thank you so much for joining us today.

KR: My pleasure.