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Discussing Adaptive Reuse and Preservation With HPA Architecture

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Many older buildings throughout Chicago are being renovated for new purposes

Nick Fochtman

The adaptive reuse of older buildings is one of the most popular trends today in Chicago real estate, and all over the city former warehouses, office buildings and factories are being converted into hotels, apartments and tech office space. HPA Architects, a local firm that specializes in preservation and adaptive reuse, has worked on numerous renovation projects throughout Chicago, including high profile development like the Chicago Athletic Association Hotel in the Loop, the Soho House in the West Loop, and 1K Fulton in Fulton Market.

To help explain why preservation is important and why adaptive reuse has become so popular, we've reached out to architects Paul Alessandro and Tom Pope of HPA Architecture to share their insight.

When working with a client on a major renovation project, where do you begin?

Paul Alessandro: Throughout my career, I’ve undertaken a number of significant renovation projects. My method of approaching them is first I ask our client what s/he envisions in the new space. Then I ask "Why?" to get to the central idea of what they want to accomplish. By articulating their vision of the project, and looking at inspirational images of what they want to do, I can drill down to who the end user is they want to appeal to. That becomes the germinating idea from which everything emanates from, and we can work out the design from there.

The interior of the Soho House
Nick Fochtman

Why are we seeing so many older buildings being transformed into hotels in Chicago right now?

PA: Compared to other cities, Chicago was underserved with respect to the number of hotel rooms available to meet steadily increasing demand from domestic and international visitors. So there was a real need to build hotels, which resulted in interest in developing new hotel properties. Historic buildings in particular hold a lot of appeal because they are a departure from standard hotel architecture.

Millennials in particular want to stay in unique properties that are individual, have character, and have a brand that feels different from anything they’ve ever seen. These young professionals appreciate the amenities of full-service hotels — such as game rooms, restaurants and bars — but they want to go to a hotel that feels like a space they would go to even if it were in their own hometowns. They want food and beverage choices that pull in local patrons outside of the hotel, because they are draws in and of themselves.

Much of the old architectural detail at the Chicago Athletic Club Association was restored
Nick Fochtman

What are some of the things that can go wrong when dealing with historic preservation?

PA: With renovation projects, there’s always uncertainty about what you may find when construction starts that can impact the planned design. This can present a real challenge — things like a broken column, hazardous materials, and so forth. Or it can be a wonderful surprise, like a long-lost finish or a painting behind a wall.

At the Chicago Motor Club, we found original chandeliers hidden in a rooftop mechanical room, and the original terrazzo lobby floor under a tile overlay. At the Chicago Athletic Association, we discovered a lot of old ornamentation covered up from past renovations. The original ceiling "stalactites" in the White City Ballroom were hidden under a dropped ceiling.

So there can be both challenges and rewards that are revealed during the construction process on historic properties. Because of this, it’s important to have a really collaborative relationship between the client, design and construction team. Solutions to these issues have to be worked out quickly, sometimes on the spot.

A staircase from the Chicago Athletic Association Hotel
Nick Fochtman

Your firm has worked on numerous adaptive reuse and historic preservation projects. Why do developers often come to you for this type of work?

PA: Developers often approach us with their adaptive reuse projects because we really understand cost/benefit considerations, the landmark process, and the technical aspects of renovation projects. Thus, we can guide developers on these issues that are critical in a restoration project. Our approach is to keep the historic material that’s important and salvageable yet also integrate new aspects and features that add value and benefit to the owner in the final product. We have our finger on the pulse of current trends, so when we do a historic rehab we make choices that maximize the return of those design decisions. We understand best what is important to the restoration, to the project, and to the bottom line of the designer. We balance all of those considerations when we undertake a historic building and bring it back to life.

The interior of the renovated Chicago Motor Club Building
Nick Fochtman

Why not just tear down a building and start over? Why is historic renovation important?

PA: First, historic buildings are unique. They contain architectural details, spaces and materials that you can’t duplicate in current new construction buildings. They have an authentic feel and are site specific. The Chicago Athletic Association is a building that could only have been built in Chicago. When you redevelop a historic structure, the resulting property gets an immediate identifier. There’s an additional layer of branding, positioning, and marketing that gets conveyed because of the unique history and attributes of the original building. There’s a sense of place and status that one doesn’t always get from new buildings.

Second, old buildings were often very sturdily built. They were of a construction type that would be expensive to tear town. They’re also often infill projects located within blocks, and amid tight spaces where it would be difficult to build anew. In the city specifically, they were also built out to the maximum property conditions allowed. Today’s developer often wouldn’t gain anything by tearing down an existing building and constructing a new structure.

Moreover, vintage commercial buildings often had regular column patterns that are easily convertible to other purposes. Historic renovation is important because historic buildings tell the history of a place. If you tear them down, you erase the past. People visit cities because they have a past — historic buildings are part of what tells a story of a place. If you restore a historic building, you can often reinvigorate the surrounding neighborhood. The improved building becomes a central monument, a beacon whose development impact can ripple throughout the neighborhood. The result is that there’s greater foot traffic, retail picks up, and then other buildings get slated for renovation. The additional upfront labor, time, and costs that a renovation may entail can yield positive returns far greater in collateral development.

An empty hallway in the Bush Temple of Music
Nick Fochtman

TOM POPE: Adaptive reuse projects really speak to a demographic that wants to connect with neighborhoods. They are a marked departure from institutionalized commercial buildings (these are not your parents’ office buildings). Instead, urban campus settings attract young professionals. Recent graduates enjoyed a collaborative experience in school, and seek a similar atmosphere in their work lives.

At 1KFulton, Google and other tenants enjoy a campus-style space that’s grounded in an authentic West Loop neighborhood experience that’s part of the urban fabric. It’s not a sterile corporate environment or a generic suburban campus that could be situated anywhere. The former Fulton Market Cold Storage building was an ideal candidate for adaptive reuse to Class A office space. Since it was originally designed for industrial use, it had large floor plates, heavy floors and deep bays. Its tall ceilings allow for generous daylighting. Moreover, it’s a testament to the gritty, raw history of Chicago’s meatpacking roots.

909 West Bliss

909 West Bliss by R2 Companies also involves revitalizing an existing industrial property into a high-tech commercial development. Similar to 1KFulton, the three- and six-story loft-office structures have tall ceilings and unique floor plates, and offer expansive views back to the city. The property is located on Goose Island centered between six major neighborhoods, so the location is attractive to young professionals who prefer a short commute by bike or public transportation, rather than traveling into the Loop central business district.

The comprehensive plan for the North Branch River Campus includes a first-phase adaptive reuse as well Phase II development of a new construction commercial building. Architecturally, the annex will be a modern contrast to the existing building but it will be true to the spirit of establishing a visual and physical connection via bridge between Goose Island and its broader context. Both project components act together as one campus setting. The new building will offer expansive rooftop amenities and indigenous greenscape.

The old Bush Temple of Music is being made over
Nick Fochtman

As with the other two projects, Bush Temple of Music will include renovation of a historic building plus new construction. The new 15-story tower links directly with the existing building. Its architectural design is clearly new, with a clean Mid-Century aesthetic and a simple organization that doesn’t compete with Bush Temple of Music’s ornate French Renaissance Revival-style design. The annex features a minimal exposed structure with glass infill, and was deliberately laid out in a way to play on reflections of the organic, ornate turn-of-the-century detailing.