Rising rents in city centers are helping to create a steady market for redevelopment of older industrial assets. Commercial real estate professionals are realizing the potential of these aging facilities by upgrading and marketing them to tenants who understand the economic value of repositioned space. These buildings have a history and an atmosphere that can’t be replicated. They have stories embedded in their very walls. So, when a structure’s original function becomes redundant, it makes more than just environmental sense to give them a new purpose. Adaptive reuse — changing the function of a building, not its form — has emerged as a major force in commercial real estate.
At PlanForce, we’ve been involved in more than a dozen adaptive reuse and mixed-use architecture projects over the past three years. So what are the critical traits of successful projects? Let’s dive in!
1. Great Location
After built structures become disused or abandoned, adaptive reuse can be the perfect way to breathe new life into an old building, while conserving resources and historic value. Whether due to environmental reasons, land availability, or the desire to conserve a historic landmark, countless development companies are turning to adaptive reuse as a solution to some of the modern problems of the built environment.
As with any commercial real estate project, however, location is still king. The building itself may be a gem, but if the adjoining property is a junkyard or a Superfund site, think twice about the project. If you possess the pioneering spirit, you might go ahead and invest your time and dollars in a neighborhood in transition. Creative agencies, yoga studios, and tap rooms do well in older, less polished neighborhoods. High-end law firms? Maybe not so much.
2. Character-Defining Features
Adaptive reuse allows older buildings to be redeveloped and repurposed instead of demolished. These projects adapt the internal and external structure of a building so the character of the old influences the format of the new, which often leads to some quirky and inspirational features. Successful projects seek out and highlight the character-defining features of older buildings.
Clearly, you don’t want to do a gut rehab that wipes away all traces of the building’s prior life. To strike a balance between old and new, keep interesting architectural details that convey the spirit of the old structure and add systems and comforts that make it usable for you and your tenants now.
When making adaptations, think of ways to make a big impact — and create buzz in the neighborhood — with just a few broad strokes. For example, at 811 Glenwood, we added a black and bright green, branded façade, along with a high-strength steel tension trellis for climbing vines. These exterior additions have created excitement around a formerly ignored building, while spending the development budget wisely.
3. Original Materials
Successful adaptive reuse projects seek to develop the space for new uses while preserving traces of the building’s history. The central idea is to respect and honor the original architecture through the Power of Design.
Not all building materials withstand the test of time. In general, brick, iron, and steel tend to survive better than wood, which is highly susceptible to water damage and wood-destroying insects. It’s essential that the elements that give a place its character remain capable of providing proper structural support and service. In addition to unforeseen problems with original structures and the removal of toxic materials such as asbestos, adaptive reuse must fall in line with current legislation and meet tough planning regulations.
4. Flexible Thinking
When adapting an older building for new uses, you often have to plan the space without specific tenants in mind. This means creating interior spaces of different sizes that will be adaptable to a variety of uses, including office, retail, restaurants, healthcare, and even art galleries and performance spaces like at The Broadway in Minneapolis.
This adaptability goes beyond just the size of the interior spaces. To plan for such a variety of tenants, you also need to think about technical aspects, such as plumbing and electrical. A coffee shop has much different needs than a guitar store, and you’ll need to plan for all of these potential tenants. If possible, avoid locking down any of the interior spaces for specific tenant types. Fun, creative buildings will attract hip tenants with unique needs — leave your design open to accommodate them.
5. Respectful Upgrades
Big, old buildings often sell for a fraction of what it costs to make them usable. When converting older warehouses and factories to mixed-use office and retail space, this can mean completely overhauling the electrical and mechanical systems. It can also mean making efforts to improve thermal efficiency, which is tricky when you’re also attempting to keep the original character of the building intact.
One upfront expense that can reduce operating costs in the long run is the installation of on-site renewable energy sources like solar panels. Covering the flat roof of a warehouse in solar can significantly reduce future power bills — and attract environmentally-conscious tenants — while making use of an otherwise empty part of your building.
6. Careful Site Planning
Of course successful adaptive reuse projects look at more than just the buildings. You have to think comprehensively about how to ensure the entire site is useful and inviting to future tenants.
Developers First & First wanted to restore the old King Koil mattress factory site—a turn-of-the-century, mostly brick campus of seven buildings and an old water tower—and relaunch it as Vandalia Tower, a dynamic home for modern, creative businesses. When they engaged PlanForce to help, our designers instantly knew there wasn’t enough parking to make the plan viable.
Out of the original seven buildings on the site, we recommended tearing down one of them, in order to make room for an accessible entrance and plenty of parking. Combined with an inviting new courtyard surrounding the water tower, restoration of the exterior buildings, and spacious interiors to attract new tenants, “the transformation is stunning,” says First & First.
So what will it take to make the space you imagine a reality? The only smart way to address these questions is to work closely with a commercial architecture firm from the get-go and develop a master plan that you and all contractors will follow from day one. If you try to design-as-you-go, you may be forced to undo previous work.
Looking to convert an older building into the mixed-use project of tomorrow? Contact us today to get started on the right foot.
Ryan Schroeder, AIA
Ryan has more than 18 years of professional experience and is president of PlanForce. He holds degrees in architecture and environmental science from North Dakota State University, as well as certifications from NCARB and AIA.