Helping Buildings Evolve Gracefully

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Structures inevitably change; deciding when and how is the challenge.

By Kenneth W. Betz, Senior Editor

From the moment the first tenant moves in, buildings begin to evolve, adapt, and change to suit their occupants. Given the average age of commercial buildings in the United States—41.7 years, according to the Institute for Market Transformation, Washington—it’s not surprising that demands on buildings and the uses they are put to change throughout their lifetimes.

For example, offices of late have been configured with an emphasis on collaborative work spaces, although a recognition for a need for privacy has perhaps tempered the adoption of completely open offices. Teaching, too, has become a group undertaking, supported more than ever by technology. The same trend is seen in facilities of all kinds, putting new demands on the infrastructure needed to support technology.

Technology aside, there are those who see the value in preserving the legacy of older architecture that has historic or aesthetic significance, if not in the strictest of preservation terms, then in the sense of reinterpreting the essence and spirit of the original structure. Some members of younger generations, born long after some of the buildings now being rehabbed were built, have expressed a kind of nostalgia and appreciation for things they never directly experienced.

Other factors that influence renovation activity include the fact that buildings, such as hotels and even office buildings, need periodic freshening, if not a complete makeover, with a view toward positioning the property in the marketplace. Too, the healthcare market is experiencing a move away from centralized, all-purpose hospitals to specialty treatment centers that are geographically convenient for the patient base. Shopping centers and big-box stores are being repurposed as medical-office buildings and even data centers.

In New York and other cities, decorative details are being restored to older buildings. Red brick and cast iron are being revealed, and decorative cornices and pediments, lost to decay and lack of maintenance, are being restored with the help of architectural drawings, photos, and archives. (See sidebar, Redesigning Art Deco Landmarks.)

Developers are finding that restoration of details helps sell properties, appease preservationists, and win over public officials who must approve projects. Historic lobbies with inlaid marble floors, ceiling murals, and other ornamentation are seen as a way to stand out in a crowded market. The lobbies create a dramatic first impression, a wow factor that helps sell residences or corporate space.

Renovation and adaptive-reuse projects are not limited to cities such as New York either, Michael Poris, AIA, principal, McIntosh Poris Associates, Birmingham, MI, observed. Despite the omnipresent media images of Detroit as a city of abandoned or razed buildings and vacant lots, Poris has seen steady development in the midtown and downtown areas of Detroit. “Back in 1997 there were less than 100 projects, and by 2008 there had been nearly $40 billion in development, and likely over $50 billion up to the present,” he said.

Asked if landmark buildings are disappearing, Poris feels there currently is increased consciousness about historic buildings, noting that in the 1990s, 90% of downtown Detroit buildings were slated for demolition. “People didn’t know what they had. Part of it was just education. Now, sustainability and green concerns have helped preserve buildings. Saving a building is the greenest thing you can do,” he said.

Federal tax credits are another factor that encourage the renovation of historic buildings, Poris said, noting that as much as 25% of the funding can come from tax credits. “Every historic building we’ve worked on has used that funding. Without it, it would be more about passion than dollars. Renovation would suffer without it,” Poris commented.

New sleek, steel acoustical panels are laser cut with an organic design, evoking the garden that once filled the space between the street building and Detroit’s Woodward Garden Theater, located behind it. Photo: Justin Maconochie

New sleek, steel acoustical panels are laser cut with an organic design, evoking the garden that once filled the space between the street building and Detroit’s Woodward Garden Theater, located behind it. Photo: Justin Maconochie

To renovate or not to renovate

Still, renovation is not a foregone conclusion. Many factors go into the decision to renovate, preserve, or build new. Whether a building is worth saving and preserving is a question architects, developers, and building owners must answer.

“The vetting process is typically layered into multiple steps,” explained Fabian Kremkus, AIA, principal, CO Architects, Los Angeles. “ One has to ask: Can the building be made structurally safe and upgraded and compliant to current building codes? Is it historically significant? Does it serve its mission? My first inclination is to save, restore, renovate, and preserve and see how I can improve the building and accommodate a new program within it. I don’t see landmarks being lost, but the opposite: careful consideration and greater awareness,” he said.

Michael Liu, AIA, NCARB, vice president and principal, The Architectural Team Inc., Chelsea, MA, concurred: “Many factors and variables come into play when deciding whether to save a building—structure, environment, configuration, historical importance. Our orientation is always in favor of finding ways in which significant historic structures can not only be saved, but be put back into active service as an asset. We feel the most successful historic projects are those which extend the useful life of the building, not mothballing it.”

“Landmark buildings and historical buildings are critical, but so is new contemporary architecture,” observed Ignacio Reyes, AIA, LEED BD+C, NCARB, vice president, Leo A Daly Architects, West Palm Beach, FL. “So, you have old buildings with the old facades and beautiful architecture being augmented with amazing architectural features,” he said.

The interior is a memorable raw aesthetic of saved rustic brick planes contrasted with planes of punctured acoustic steel panels, an awards jury said of the Woodward Garden Theater. Photo: Justin Maconochie

The interior is a memorable raw aesthetic of saved rustic brick planes contrasted with planes of punctured acoustic steel panels, an awards jury said of the Woodward Garden Theater. Photo: Justin Maconochie

Not-so-old buildings

While there is support for preserving landmark and historical buildings, the enthusiasm dims somewhat for not-so-old buildings, such as some of those built after World War II.

“This is a subject where dialogue on sustainability from both an economic and aesthetic standpoint is deserved. The movement to tear down and rebuild buildings with aesthetic challenges has elevated, and it begs the question of what responsible redevelopment looks like in each case. While often these decisions are made for economic or health reasons, there are occasions where other options should exist,” said David Zeitlin, national sales manager, Cambridge Architectural, Cambridge, MD, a manufacturer of metal mesh for facades, solar shading, and interiors.

“Such is the case of the Citrus Center in Orlando, FL,” he continued. “This 18-story landmark building is currently in redevelopment and displays some exterior components that could be considered less aesthetically pleasing in the current style of building design. That said, it is a landmark building, with a great location, great views, and apparent solid construction. One of the features that has grown tired over the years are brown metal louver-style panels that sit at the garage level and are inset into the concrete façade. As part of the redevelopment, the current plan is to screen those locations with woven wire metal mesh.”

“Mid-20th century buildings have unique advantages to older structures while also having significant challenges that must be overcome to make them worth renovation and/or repurposing. Unlike 18th- and 19th-century buildings, some of these structures are typically well suited to interior reconfigurations due to their open plan and column-and-beam structural systems,” said Paul Viccica, AIA, principal, CBT Architects, Boston.

Campbell Ewald Detroit selected McIntosh Poris Associates to create a cutting-edge office that aligned with the advertising agency’s attitude and approach to its creative work. The lobby level was designed as the social hub of the workplace. Photo: Justin Maconochie

Campbell Ewald Detroit selected McIntosh Poris Associates to create a cutting-edge office that aligned with the advertising agency’s attitude and approach to its creative work. The lobby level was designed as the social hub of the workplace. Photo: Justin Maconochie

“However, there can be many obstacles in renovating these structures. Elevated concrete-slab construction that makes vertical connection nearly impossible without significant structural intervention and cost can stymie attempts to interconnect various program elements within the building. The use of hazardous materials, such as asbestos, PCBs, and other materials that were once thought to be advancements in building technologies can result in extreme costs to mitigate and, in some cases, force a re-evaluation of preservation. It is very important to undertake a comprehensive analysis of all of these buildings, including systems and existing conditions and their imbedded costs to renovate, before making a decision to renovate and repurpose,” Viccica said.

“I think before one demolishes a building, one needs to evaluate what can be done to save it first. Often there is great cost involved to convert and reuse buildings that were made to very low-quality standards. It can be difficult and economically prohibitive to save these structures, but if there is good quality of materials and retrofitting is feasible, then a second life with a new envelope or reimagined interiors can be a very good option,” said Kremkus.

“A great example is the current study we are undertaking to retrofit Franz Hall at UCLA. This is a very good building and a shining example of its time. With fairly minimal structural interventions, seismic safety can be achieved, and a second life for Franz Hall is in its future. Advances in structural retrofit techniques, material sciences, and engineering using advanced computer simulation and testing are leading to more economic and aesthetically pleasing results that make saving what most people perceive as mundane structures, worthwhile,” he said.

Michael Poris agreed: “More modern buildings are worth preserving. The structure is generally good; usually the steel or concrete structure that is intact.”

Windows systems might be another matter, he allowed. Architects such as “Eero Saarinen and Mies van der Rohe were basically creating curtainwalls for the first time. Saarinen perfected them at the GM Tech Center in Warren, MI, in the late 1940s and early 1950s. The technology came from automobile windshields. If you look at the buildings he did there, the window systems are a little different on each one. They were literally perfecting the windows systems as they worked on the buildings,” Poris said.
“Energy was cheap back then, so they weren’t nearly as concerned about the cost. What was built back then was still pretty new technology and that is usually what has to be replaced or reinforced,” he added. “But the structure is still there and typically intact. Heating and cooling and window systems can be upgraded. I think the buildings are definitely worth keeping.”

“In the ‘60s and ‘70s, the term ‘contemporary’ was actually very simple. There wasn’t a lot of sophistication in its envelope and not a lot of detailing. That gives you a canvas to do new things. So can they be preserved? Maybe better to say repurposed,” Reyes said.

The existing warehouse’s raw aesthetic merged with the craftsmanship of new design interventions, creating a highly collaborative work environment of inspiring spaces, a design-awards jury said of the Campbell Ewald Detroit renovation. Photo: Justin Maconochie

The existing warehouse’s raw aesthetic merged with the craftsmanship of new design interventions, creating a highly collaborative work environment of inspiring spaces, a design-awards jury said of the Campbell Ewald Detroit renovation. Photo: Justin Maconochie

Buildings people love to hate

Modernist and Brutalist architecture, it seems, have never been widely admired by the public, making difficult the case for keeping such buildings. Architects, on the other hand, are more likely to appreciate and understand these architectural styles.

“I love architecture, and there are good and bad buildings built during any period. I think that there are many Brutalist concrete buildings that are of landmark quality and deserve to be protected and cared for as much as buildings from the turn of the century do. The Page Museum (Thornton and Fagan Associates, 1976), Cal Poly Pomona College of Environmental Design (Carl Maston, 1971), and St. Basil’s Roman Catholic Church (Albert C. Martin & Associates, 1974) are just a few examples here in Los Angeles,” said Kremkus.

“While it is sometimes hard for us to see the beauty of certain modernist (which is not the same as contemporary) styles, it is important to remember that aesthetic value is not absolute. It wasn’t so long ago that many stylistically traditional buildings that would be considered attractive now were once torn down for being considered dowdy and obsolete by the aesthetic standards of the day. It is also often possible to modify such buildings to make them more acceptable to current aesthetic sensibilities,” said Michael Liu.

Reyes agreed: “I would say there is some Brutalist architecture that is really beautiful, and there is some that is not so much. I see some buildings that look like bomb shelters and others that inspire; they look powerful and strong. It just depends on how successful the architect was. Are they worth saving? They can be. They can be worth repurposing.”

It goes without saying that buildings inevitably will undergo change and be rehabbed or renovated, sometimes in ways that are ill advised or not well planned. More often than not, a building will undergo multiple changes as owners and tenants come and go. The result may require an intervention to undo some of the bad decisions or simply to accommodate a new use. And that should keep architects and contractors busy for some time to come. CBP

Detroit Architect’s Designs Evoke Past And Present

The rebirth of an historic theater and offices for an advertising agency are two renovation projects that run counter to the typical image of Detroit as a city of vacant lots and abandoned buildings.

McIntosh Poris Associates, Birmingham, MI, received its 11th and 12th Honor Awards from the Michigan chapter of the American Institute of Architects (AIA) for the projects.

The 103-year-old Woodward Garden Theater was reintroduced as a multi-purpose entertainment venue after years of neglect in a blend of historic preservation and contemporary design. McIntosh Poris’ re-imagining of the theater—which is part of a larger, full-block, multi-use development—used remaining elements of the building’s past as springboards for new elements.

A previously hidden decorative plaster ceiling now floats above the auditorium. New sleek, steel acoustical panels are laser cut with an organic design, evoking the garden that once filled the space between the street building and the theater behind.

“The interior is a memorable raw aesthetic of saved rustic brick planes, contrasted with planes of punctured acoustic steel panels. Well-placed retention of historic elements creates a constant visual tension,” remarked the awards jury.

Michael Poris, AIA, principal, McIntosh Poris Associates, noted that the theater was a live music venue called the Village in the 1960s. A young Mitch Ryder, Ted Nugent, and Bob Seger were among the musicians who appeared there. The theater later was home of a peep show, and in the 1980s, there was a fire.

“In some ways, technology made the renovation easier and less expensive than it might have been in earlier years,” he related. “Laser-cut steel panels were used in the lobby, and MDF [medium density fiberboard] was used elsewhere.”

“Creating the panels was really quite inexpensive,” Poris said. “On the steel, creating the pattern was actually cheaper than buying ready-made panels. People were astounded by that. In fact, we had to fight to keep it because everyone thought it would be more expensive. It almost became drywall.”

“We’ve worked on other high-end projects where stone walls that, in days past would have been done by hand, have been shaped by laser or water jet,” Poris related. “The labor savings meant economically that we could do anything and beyond what they used to do back in the days of the robber barons.”

In the second award-winning project, Campbell Ewald Detroit selected McIntosh Poris to create a cutting-edge office that aligned with the advertising agency’s attitude and approach to its creative work. McIntosh Poris developed a scheme to foster independent work, as well as creative collaboration. The lobby level was designed as the social hub of the workplace. A large bleacher staircase links the first two floors of the office, creating an open space for large and small gatherings. McIntosh Poris completed preliminary design, programming, and schematic design for this project, whose architect of record was Neumann/Smith Architecture, Detroit. “The existing warehouse’s raw aesthetic merged with the craftsmanship of new design interventions, creating a highly collaborative work environment of inspiring spaces,” commented the design awards jury.

Redesigning Art Deco Landmarks

Two landmarks originally designed by noted Art Deco architect Ralph Walker, one of New York’s most prolific architects and master of modern ornamentation, were redesigned by New York architect CetraRuddy.

Walker Tower

Walker Tower

Walker Tower in New York’s Chelsea neighborhood, completed recently, adapts and expands a majestic 1929 tower originally designed as a commercial building. The top 13 floors of the 22-story building were converted to condominiums.

Intricately faceted, multi-story bronze stainless pilasters frame new floor-to-ceiling, articulated metal windows, carefully proportioned for the façade. Custom fabrications include spandrel panels with motifs found throughout the building, made with bronze-colored stainless steel and metallically painted, formed-aluminum plates to reflect the period. Tall brick parapets were replaced with period-sensitive elements, topped by glass railings. A new building crown, inspired by Walker’s original sketches, was designed by CetraRuddy in two-toned metal that echoes the original statuary bronze and nickel silver found at the building’s entrance. Photo: David Sundberg/ESTO.

Stella Tower

Stella Tower

Stella Tower, currently under construction, is a second project adapting a 1930 Ralph Walker classic on West 50th Street, originally a New York Telephone Co. switch building. Its intricate handcrafted brick masonry, dramatic setbacks, and remarkable ornamentation make it an important landmark. The architects worked to adapt the tower to varied residence configurations, all while preserving the dramatic crown, using 3D scans and special reinforced concrete. Photo: Courtesy CetraRuddy.

Ken’s View

Lights Out For Breuer-Designed Library?

The guestroom automation people like to talk about the wow factor. By that they mean, among other things, presenting guests with a welcome lighting scene when entering a guestroom.

Well, when I crossed the threshold of my room at a mid-priced, business-traveler-type hotel in Atlanta recently, the lighting scene was—wow, total darkness.

The explanation was simple. There was no overhead light fixture in the short passageway to the pod-like room. Since it was such a short distance, the omission may have been an understandable budgetary decision. The lack was no particular loss; such lights are usually ugly and leave the rest of the room in shadow anyway. Recessed spots would have been nice but likewise not in the budget.

What was provided—and the idea may not have been an entirely bad one—was a desk lamp plugged into an outlet controlled by the switch near the door, thus creating something of a welcoming scene on the cheap. Alas, the execution failed. Someone had turned off the switch on the lamp. Double alas, this lamp had the usual charging outlets in its base—so if anyone were to plug a device (as all electronic gadgets are called these days) into the lamp, leave the room, and, being environmentally responsible, turn off the light from the wall switch by the door, his device would not be charged as expected upon his return. Wow, indeed.

But more to the point of this month’s feature, I do applaud the hotel chain for taking an older building, built in 1925 as an office building, and preserving at least some of its character, even if some details were overlooked.

Across the street from the hotel, however, a more extreme architectural drama has played out over the years, vividly demonstrating the sometimes fraught nature of renovation vs. demolition and new construction. At its center was a Carnegie library, designed by New York architects Ackerman & Ross. It was torn down in 1977. A local history buff recounts that identifiable fragments of the old library can still be seen, like relics of a lost civilization, in an overgrown plot of land that was once a city dump.

But forgotten architectural gems are old news; there are newer gems waiting to be consigned to oblivion. The Carnegie Library was replaced by the Fulton County Central Library building, designed by Marcel Breuer. It is said to be one of the last buildings Breuer created before his death. Breuer, most of you will know, designed the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York—before the current one by Renzo Piano, that is. Breuer also produced some chairs, several of which might have been a nice addition to the aforementioned hotel room—had there been space.

If the Carnegie Library was summarily dispatched by the wrecking ball, the Breuer building seems to have earned little more respect and admiration from the general public. There was talk back in 2008 that the Breuer-designed library, considered to be a Brutalist masterpiece by a devoted minority, should be sold, torn down, turned into a tae-kwon-do studio, or whatever happens to under-appreciated buildings. It was on the 2010 World Monuments Watch List of Most Endangered Sites.

The good news for Breuer fans is that the central library, as of a few weeks ago, was still standing. An ambitious library-building program, the same one that caused consternation about the fate of the building when it was first announced seven years ago, is currently in Phase I, which includes eight new libraries and two expanded libraries, according to Kelly Robinson Vann, public relations and marketing director, Atlanta-Fulton Public Library System.

In fact, Atlanta voters approved a $275-million referendum in 2008 to fund these new and expanded libraries. It seems they like libraries well enough, but maybe not Brutalist ones.

Talk about the fate of the central library subsided after the first year or two, but it is not off the table. Phase II of the building program includes the renovation of the remaining 23 libraries, as well as a decision on whether to build a new central library or renovate the current building. This second phase will begin upon the completion of the current phase, which is expected in 2016. So, for now, the decision whether or not to turn the lights out in the central library has not been made.

There you have it. On a single street in Atlanta you see the classic drama of an evolving American city—rehab, restoration, preservation, demolition, or some combination thereof. One building is repurposed, reborn as a so-so, illumination-challenged hotel, while across the street the wrecking ball demolished one significant building and may loom over yet another. One would rather not imagine what buildings were razed to make way for the plentiful parking garages in the neighborhood. Were some of them worth saving? Was the Carnegie library? What about the Breuer library? Architectural critics, and those who fancy themselves to be, will debate this for some time to come.

Next time I’m in Atlanta, I’ll check to see if Breuer’s library building is still standing, but I hope I won’t be staying across the street. The Ritz-Carlton is just a block away—and I hear they have lights that work.

Kenneth W. Betz, Senior Editor, CBP

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