Often, the passing of a trend or a shift in the economy leave behind buildings that slowly deteriorate as they lay unused or underused, at the mercy of the elements and the flow of time. Eventually, some of the lucky ones catch the eye of someone who can see beyond the initial purpose of the structure and envision a new, perhaps even grander, scope. Adaptive reuse is among the most widely employed sustainable building practices nationwide. Its many advantages include: land conservation and the reduction of urban sprawl; positive community transformation through renewing neighborhood vitality; and the preservation of local landmarks, while simultaneously creating additional office space for new businesses and new industries to expand. Below, we’ll explore the making of six office projects that came together through adaptive reuse.
The Green Building – Louisville, Ky.
Located at 732 E. Market St. in the East Market District of Louisville, The Green Building is the city’s first commercial building to be LEED Platinum-certified, as well as the first LEED Platinum adaptive reuse structure in the state. Originally built in the 1800s, the property’s first known commercial use dates back to the 1890s, when it housed a dry goods store: Sternau’s Dry Goods operated at the site for roughly 50 years. The property was later home to a mill supply through the 1950s and a Goodwill through the 1970s.
Then, in 2007, property owners Augusta and Gill Holland resolved to revive the building after decades of misuse and, on its bones, create a beacon of sustainability in the region. For this ambitious undertaking, they contracted Los Angeles-based (fer) studio, specialists in unique architecture and urban environment design. Within two years, they had transformed the century-old building into a mixed-use commercial gem, home to some of the most dramatic Louisville office space, as well as an art gallery, event space, a conference room, dedicated tenant restaurant space and areas open to community programming. The resulting transformation reinvigorated the entire district, which is now the go-to center for arts and sustainability and has since been coined NuLu, for “New Louisville.”
Aiming to demonstrate the full potential of sustainable architecture, the project made good use of all of the materials that were already readily available on site. For example, much of the main masonry shell remained intact and was sealed with inert recycled insulating materials. Similarly, elements of the original structural woodwork were also processed into new flooring and furniture. And, many items salvaged for recycling were provided to local businesses for reuse. Additionally, new components were locally sourced, with a strong emphasis placed on ethically and responsibly made materials. Today, The Green Building continues to rely on local businesses for day-to-day maintenance.
Now, a new structure rises from within the old shell in unexpectedly harmonious contrast to the historic façade: The modern wood and aluminum core sports a 40-foot-high lobby with an ascending glass spine that bridges all three floors and directs natural light and outdoor views throughout the interior. Meanwhile, the green roof, a rain catchment system, and a rain garden work together to store and filter rainwater runoff while also supplying irrigation. And, a semi-enclosed outdoor courtyard provides a warm weather event space that’s shaded by trees and a canopy of more than 80 solar panels. Finally, in addition to the photovoltaic elements, a geothermal system and a large ice storage system also work together to cool or warm the building, as needed — for a fraction of the cost of traditional climate control — as well as help the facility outperform state energy codes by 65%.
Seaholm District – Austin, Texas
The Seaholm Power Plant (SPP) is one of the state’s highest-profile adaptive reuse projects. The historic site at 800 W. Cesar Chavez St. was designed by Burns & McDonnell Engineering Co. and built of cast concrete in two phases in 1950 and 1955 by Odom Construction. The power generation facility was later decommissioned in 1996 but, in 2005, the City of Austin entrusted the site to a redevelopment team made up of: project manager Capital Project Management; managing partners Los Angeles-based CIM Group and Southwest Strategies Group, Inc.; Centro Development, LLC for residential development; and State Street Properties and La Corsha Hospitality Group for restaurant and event management. Together, Seaholm Power LLC set out to repurpose the property in a way that would include public and cultural uses, as well as revitalize the city-owned land along Lady Bird Lake in the process.
However, Seaholm’s most striking — and arguably most labor-intensive element — was the turbine room. At 110 feet by 235 feet with a 65-foot-high ceiling and clerestory windows flanking the upper aisles, the room allowed sunlight to pour in through all three floors of the structure. The concrete walls were also three feet thick and, overall, the building offered more than 110,000 square feet of usable floor area. But, before any redevelopment work could be designed, a thorough clean-up of hazardous materials was required — a complex operation that took nine years and cost $13 million. After a job well done, it was the first such U.S. facility to be deemed Ready for Reuse by the EPA and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality under the federal Toxic Substance Control Act.
Upon completion of the project, Seaholm earned a LEED Gold certification and became an anchor in the downtown Austin market. The former turbine hall was repurposed into 103,000 square feet of Austin office space suited for the research and development operations of anchor tenant Athenahealth — a network-enabled services and mobile apps service provider for medical groups and health systems. The 7.8-acre development is also home to a 30-story residential high-rise with a sky deck on the 10th floor, as well as nearly 40,000 square feet of ground-floor restaurant space and three acres of open space, including a public plaza and an outdoor terrace overlooking Lady Bird Lake. Most recently, a partnership between the Austin Parks and Recreation Department; the Trail Foundation; the Austin Parks Foundation; and local architecture firm Cotera + Reed have set out to move the Seaholm District rehabilitation even further. Specifically, the partners aim to rehabilitate the Art Deco, industrial-inspired main intake of the former facility, as well as the surrounding park land, into a public space and event venue. In the end, the Seaholm Waterfront project will go a long way to strengthening the city’s dedication to adaptive reuse in the public interest.
White Cross Bakery / Wonder Bread Factory – Washington, D.C.
Peter Michael Dorsch was a Washington, D.C. native born to Bavarian immigrants who had arrived in Washington in the 1870s and made a living by selling imported German foods before opening a restaurant on 7th Street. Dorsch and his brothers spent several years working at bakeries throughout the city before finally opening their own in Shaw, a central neighborhood in D.C.’s northwest quadrant, as well as one of the city’s oldest. Eventually, Dorsch’s White Cross Bakery prospered and grew into a complex of seven industrial buildings that were completed between 1913 and 1936, when The Continental Baking Co. purchased the property. It used the site at 641 S St. to produce Wonder Bread and Hostess Cakes until relocating its operations in the 1980s.
One of the few remaining examples of early 20th-century industrial architecture in Washington, D.C., the Wonder Bread Factory building — located half a block east of 7th Street — was left empty and in disrepair. In fact, by the time Douglas Development Corp. purchased the property in 1997, the factory’s roof had partially collapsed, the floorboards had buckled and the basement was flooded. Even so, the overall structure was strong. And, following an extensive renovation effort carried out in 2012 and 2013, it was transformed into a mix of retail and some of the best office space for rent in Washington, D.C.
The Douglas Development team included Dewberry — which provided site/civil engineering and surveying services for the project — as well as R2L Architects and Washington, D.C.-based McCullough Construction. Notably, the restoration maintained several of the building’s original details: the white crosses that decorate the original brick façade; the Wonder Bread and Hostess Cake signage; the large, multi-pane windows at the front of the building; and fully restored, open-bar joists — triangulated lightweight steel trusses that were used to support floors. Additionally, the redevelopment team added a fourth story to the factory’s rear underground parking in the former factory basement, as well as a rooftop terrace. As a result, the refurbished amenities — in addition to the property location — ensured a full tenant roster within one year of the project’s completion.
Hughes Aircraft Company / Hercules Campus – Los Angeles, Calif.
The Hughes Aircraft Company (HAC) was formed in 1932 as part of industrialist Howard Hughes’ privately owned Hughes Tool Company. Initially, HAC’s purpose was to track expenses related to Hughes’ aviation interests — innovations in aerodynamics, engineering and communications that led to setting multiple flight speed records. But, the need for more laboratory and production space led to the development of a large vacant site just south of Culver City. Gradually, HAC built a 28-acre campus that was used for the development of the D-2 prototype fighter plane, as well as for manufacturing aircraft parts and armaments. But, the most prominent of the campus buildings was constructed to house the legendary H-4 “Hercules” aircraft — also popularly known as the Flying Boat or the Spruce Goose — which was more than 200 feet long and had a 320-foot wingspan. Later, Hughes’ continued research in avionics and communications systems led to an expanded workforce, as well as campus. To that end, multiple buildings were constructed up to 1952, but only some of them remained to this day. By 1980, HAC was sold and relocated, leaving the campus empty.
In 2010, The Ratkovich Co. partnered with Penwood Real Estate Investment Management to purchase the land and, consequently, announced a visionary adaptive-reuse investment of $50 million to transform the industrial complex into a home for state-of-the-art innovation, once again. Appropriately, in keeping with the site’s history, the endeavor was named Hercules Campus. Overall, the site encompasses 11 nationally registered historic landmark buildings that offer in excess of 530,000 square feet of modern Los Angeles office space, along with creative space for entertainment, media and technology innovators.
Meanwhile, the large, timber-framed hangar that was constructed in 1943 for the giant H4 aircraft was converted into a production soundstage in the 1990s. Films created here include James Cameron’s “Titanic” (1997) and “Avatar” (2009). Then, Google began leasing the structure in 2016 and contracted ZGF Architects to redesign the space in order to accommodate the tech giant’s creative office operations. In addition to the Spruce Goose Hangar, Google also occupies several other portions of the campus through its subsidiary YouTube. The company also purchased 12 acres of undeveloped land in the vicinity of the hangar in 2014, for which no definitive plans have been announced.
Campus restoration efforts also included full-service mechanical contractor Murray Co.; Shangri-La Construction; MATT Construction; western U.S. historic preservation, restoration and rehabilitation specialist Spectra Co.; Studio 111 architects; landscape architect Tom Leader Studio; and many more. As expected, this massive adaptive-reuse restoration has garnered multiple awards since its completion, including a Los Angeles Conservancy Award in 2014 and an AIA Interior Architecture Award in 2020.
The Belltown Collective – Seattle, Wa.
Located in the heart of one of Seattle’s most historic and passionate downtown neighborhoods, the gem at 2231 First Ave. S. caught the eye of real estate developer Evolution Projects. The building was originally completed in 1908 and functioned as a neighborhood retail hub. But, inspired by the positive daytime energy of the vibrant neighborhood, the firm sought to deliver a creative space where a visiting professional community could thrive alongside full-time residents. As part of the redevelopment, Evolution Projects teamed up with architect Robert Hutchinson and Metis Construction for a two-story interior remodel of the three-bay property — a total of 10,000 square feet of tenant improvement work.
As part of the transition, the team transformed the old, retail-specific interior into creative office space by selectively opening up existing wood-stud bearing walls to allow for improved flexibility of the space over time. Moreover, by removing finishes from the upper portions of the wood-stud bearing walls, the team was able to create a better flow of filtered light between spaces. Most important, the interior redevelopment of the property sought to preserve and celebrate the old, as well as the new: The building’s historic character is showcased through exposed, refinished details — such as original wood studs and ceiling joists — which create a datum line that is applied throughout the entire space.
Likewise, new flooring and custom steel handrails also complement the original wood ceiling. Notably, the new architectural insertions were carefully drawn to allow for highly inclusive accessibility between the three main interior spaces. The façade also received a much-needed makeover with a striking new coat of paint and updated waterproofing. And, although the project came together to address the need for creative Seattle office space, the goal of the interior design was to establish a highly flexible, open venue that could accommodate a variety of public — as well as private — functions.
The Chelsea Market – Manhattan, N.Y.
As Carter B. Horsley puts it, Chelsea Market is the heart and stomach of the Chelsea neighborhood. In fact, the full market is a complex of several buildings that span two blocks between Ninth and 11th avenues, bound by 15th and 16th streets. But, often, the name is only associated with the most prominent structure — an 11-story mid-rise that occupies the block between 10th and 11th avenues and is connected to the adjacent building at 85 10th Ave. by an aluminum-covered Art Deco pedestrian bridge.
The history of the complex dates back to the late 1800s, when eight large eastern bakeries formed the New York Biscuit Company and later incorporated several more firms in competition with Chicago-based consortium the American Biscuit and Manufacturing Company. Along with a few others, the two eventually merged to form the National Biscuit Company (Nabisco), which would produce half the biscuit production in the U.S. Then, following several changes to production line technology, the company gradually relocated its operations across the Hudson to Fair Lawn, N.J., and sold the 22 structure, 2-million-square-foot complex in 1959.
More than three decades later in 1990, investor Irwin B. Cohen made efforts to acquire the principal Nabisco buildings and subsequently rented the upper floors to office and multimedia use tenants, while reserving the ground level for what would become the go-to local food manufacturer hall in the city. Specifically, he partnered with Vandeberg Architects to create a long, interior arcade of food stores that doubled as a unique experience — the concourse feels like one of New York City’s best preserved archaeological sites. What’s more, this 1997 redevelopment has been widely credited with revitalizing West Chelsea and the Meatpacking District so much so that, in recent years, the ground-floor food hall has attracted more than 6 million visitors annually.
During a 2005 interview with the Center for an Urban Future, Cohen discussed the success of the Chelsea Market adaptive reuse project: “Nobody has to come here. It’s on the periphery of the neighborhood. It’s only one block from the Hudson River. The next thing you see is New Jersey. But, why do people come here? Because we have a concentration of vendors. Every company is family-owned. There are no chains. If you want to get that special birthday cake that Ruthie’s Cheesecake sells, you can’t get it anywhere in New York except here because this is where it’s made. And, if you want Amy’s Bread as it’s coming out of the oven, this is the only place to get it. You’re not going to get Amy’s bread from Gristedes. That’s why people come here. The concentration of each of our tenants doing something very special says to the public that this is the place to get the best food in Manhattan. Markets work.”
Indeed, the appeal of the location has only intensified since then. In 2011, developer Jamestown bought out its partners’ shares and took full ownership of the property. One year later, the company got approval of its plans for a six-story office tower expansion above the western portion of the site, which was designed in partnership with Studios. The additional project also delivered some of the most highly coveted office space for rent in Manhattan. In 2018, Google — already the largest tenant in the building at the time — purchased the property outright in what remains one of the largest single-asset sales ever recorded in the city.
As urban development continues to face challenges stemming from aspects like economic changes, climate change, regional shifts in industry and resident migration, adaptive reuse remains a staple of creative real estate adaptation to the times. And, when done right, adaptive reuse is an elegant solution to avoiding the obsolescence of buildings — in addition to being beneficial for the city and its local culture, the environment we all ultimately share and the sturdy structure itself.