Renovate, Repurpose, Renew
By Nicholas E. Vlattas, AIA, with Deborah Marquardt
Architects can and should lead the way on sustainability—and it starts with our own offices. A new, modern workplace with cutting-edge green technologies is one way to do that. Another is to adapt an existing structure for a new use and incorporate appropriate sustainable strategies.
With 300 billion square-feet of existing building stock in the United States—and with residential and commercial buildings contributing up to 39 percent of greenhouse gas emissions—there are compelling reasons to adapt green practices for existing (not necessarily historic) buildings rather than build anew. Repurposing an existing building that has fallen off tax rolls because its original purpose is defunct is another compelling reason. The AIA is setting an outstanding example with the renovation of its 1973 Washington headquarters designed by The Architects Collaborative. The AIA initiative will be a prototype for integrating sustainable features into a modern office building. Studios Architecture, which is leading the work, says the project is on track to earn LEED Platinum. It will also, reportedly, achieve carbon neutrality by 2030. Natural ventilation and day-lighting will play key roles, as will rainwater collection and building envelope changes that “demonstrate how significant urban buildings can and should be renovated, preserved, and renewed,” according to the firm.
Richmond’s Odell Associates traded office cubicles in a suburban office park for digs in an old cigarette factory for the opportunity to take a building “once used to create physical energy and transform the space to house collaborative energy,” according to Nick Cooper, AIA, who managed the renovation. The firm sought room to grow and wanted to return to the city. Odell was offered ownership in the building if it took a majority of the space; financial incentives from the City of Richmond, as well as special financing for rehabilitating historic buildings, made the financial model attractive.
Working at the Power Plant @ Lucky Strike “has enhanced our creativity,” says Berkeleigh Combs, Odell’s Marketing Coordinator. The plant was the last structure to be renovated at the terminus of Cary Street, an area that now contains lofts, restaurants and offices in other abandoned factory buildings. “It was a no-brainer,” says Cooper. “It was a prominent site, the final development of this sector. It is so important to give this back to the city.” The second floor is the heart of the building, with studios stretching the length of the space and ceilings soaring to 85 feet. A brick wall that bisectedthe space now has three large, two-story openings, which unifies the sprawling office. Steel windows were cleaned and reused, as were existing stairs. A large concrete table, which once held turbines, now serves as a conference room threshold. An upper mezzanine, with views of the James River, houses a lounge and kitchen for all. The project has won an Award for Excellence in Architecture from the Virginia Society AIA as well as a design award from the Greater Richmond Association for Commercial Real Estate.
BCWH Architects moved into the old Atlantic Motor Company on West Broad Street in Richmond, a project that won a Palladio Award from Traditional Building Magazine in 2007. Another Richmond firm, Commonwealth Architects, restored the building envelope and other spaces for owner Brad Sauer, of the Sauer spice family. BCWH designed its own space, however, by transforming the old garage—where Nashes once came for service—into 11,000 square-feet of studio space. “Everyone thought we’d want the two-story old showroom,” said Chuck Ray, AIA, who oversaw the renovation, “but we didn’t want to be on multiple levels.” Historic tax credit restrictions limiting full-size partitions worked to BCWH’s advantage. The arrangement allows collaboration and work in progress to be viewed and shared.
“Every public space is a pin-up space,” says Ray. Renovation revealed a beautiful terra cotta tile wall, previously painted white. “It was a wonderful discovery and inspired the finishes for the space.” The firm formerly operated out of three separate addresses on Richmond’s commercial West Broad Street, which had been connected by punching through walls. But, the spaces didn’t flow.
When BCWH first encountered the Nash dealership, it was an eyesore as the roof had collapsed and water seeped in. Today, the building is fully leased and nearby properties are turning around. “It’s a very positive, exciting place for us to be,” says Ray, “and we wanted to stay in the city. We moved here intentionally. We wanted to help spur development. When we moved into our old location 20 years ago, the neighborhood was sketchy. Today, it is developed and lively.”
Ray adds, “Architects can do the homesteading work that other businesses might not be able to do.”The address has other advantages. As the C.F. Sauer Company is still making spices, the air often is fragrant with roasting paprika.
Most of downtown Norfolk’s historic building stock has been lost over time. Our firm committed to save two buildings for our offices, renovating an 1891 structure, which once served as a retail hardware store for C.A. Nash and, more recently, purchasing the original home of Merchants and Mechanics Savings Bank, established in 1851. The bank will be used for expansion. When we first acquired the building, I admit we outfitted it with cubicles. But in the 90’s, we opened the space for more collaboration. In 2004, we added a green roof to the Nash building. Now, we are considering another renovation to accommodate new technologies, enhanced creativity and the increasingly collaborative work styles of our Millennials. Of course, we also want to be greener.
There is reward to bringing new life to neighborhoods, saving historically significant structures, and lighting factories whose halls have been dark for years. It’s good for the environment, image, and above all, creativity.