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March 4, 2021
Thanks to pandemic-fueled changes to work and home life, including new economic pressures in a region already challenged by steep living costs, we foresee more remodels, renovations and adaptive re-use projects coming down the pike, particularly in the retail and office realms.
That’s a good thing. The environmental benefits of re-using property are well-documented; in addition, renovations often offer the chance to occupy a great location, save costs, celebrate unique features, preserve character and enhance, or even revive, whole neighborhoods.
From an architect’s point of view, such projects present just the kind of tricky problem-solving engagements we love to take on, a point that counts as both blessing and curse. For all their benefits, reclaiming a site for a new use is inherently complicated, in part because we don’t know what we’re going to encounter as you uncover the building, and also because we’re dealing with more constraints than a new-build situation presents; there are just a lot more gray area to negotiate.
Challenges to schedule, budget and aspirations of a renovation project are practically built-in, but so too is the opportunity to pull off a unique and productive project that rewards owners, users and neighbors alike. Over decades of adapting millions of square feet of existing properties, we have found that there are three basic principles keep in mind as you wade into the renovation waters.
Yes, that’s a contradictory statement. The point is to maintain a spirit of compromise throughout the project, since things that feel perfect and necessary in the design phase may prove prohibitive in permitting or construction. So yes, go ahead and pick out deluxe fabric just remember you need to buy the whole suit; ultimately you might be better served with a different cut of cloth.
Case in point: We’ve been working with a luxury auto dealer undertaking the conversion of another dealership site to accommodate sales of four brands with distinct requirements regarding space, features and finishes. We had great plans for grand spaces. Then we discovered that a culverted salmon stream limited expansion of the building’s footprint. And, we would need to build an exterior ramp due to limited accessibility of existing building, which also came with outdated mechanical, lighting, phone and data infrastructure. The combination of site constraints and the cost of upgrades led to an extensive value-engineering process that threatened to derail the project.
The client saw the potential of the building, but the reality of the costs kept them from proceeding. However, once the team unraveled the program and helped the client identify their “must haves,” the scale of the project was dramatically reduced. This meant we could stay within the building footprint and focus attention on key cosmetic upgrades and as many other preferred goals as feasible to achieve the striking environment the client envisioned.
There’s no point in sugar coating this. There will be conditions both with the building and the jurisdiction that will require more attention and/or cost more than anticipated. The salmon stream mentioned above, for example. Or you might encounter older systems that do not mesh with new technology, and non-conforming items requiring upgrades due to newer codes (stormwater, energy or even land-use upgrades, such as sidewalks.) These will unfold in all phases, and while the team tries to uncover them during design and anticipate issues that could arise during permitting and construction, unhappy surprises are all but inevitable along with the occasional happy ones! Beautiful timbers revealed for example, or in the case of the car dealership the reorganization of space that allowed great daylighting in a showroom.
We met a range of such “opportunities” in the design and permitting of the dealership project, among them the need to upgrade the storefront based on current energy code, and a complete overhaul of the sidewalk and planting due to the scale of the project both of which, it must be said, will result in a better project. The building’s stairs must be rebuilt and, as is often the case when occupancy changes, additional toilets and accessibility upgrades are required.
We encounter similar issues often at Gilman Village, an ever-evolving retail center we’ve been involved with for the last 30 years. Its buildings and spaces are continually repurposed to meet market demands. Keeping up with code changes also means fire and structural issues often yield new wrinkles. Such essential, if not glamorous factors can affect the desired outcome at times, especially for small businesses whose big dreams don’t always square with tight budgets. All the more opportunity for the design team: remember, we are creative problem solvers; our mission is to make lemons out of lemonade. Which brings us to the next point.
TRUST THE PROCESS
The process is second nature to us but might take twists and turns that, even for an experienced team, can be difficult, and for an inexperienced owner, gut wrenching. Never forget that your team wants success for you; we want to perform brilliantly and deliver the best possible project. If everyone keeps cool and stays focused, we’ll figure out which way is up, and start climbing that way.
We recently completed a project in the Old Main area of Bellevue called B-Bar. It’s a fun, flexible concept that mixes retail and other uses in an older building in a unique and active part of the city. Due to the shared uses and open plan that underpins the concept, building code officials had concerns. We worked diligently with city officials to identify and address each one. It took longer than anticipated to resolve the city’s issues while maintaining the spirit of the design, but persistence, focus and collaboration yielded a project that is thriving, even in the midst of a pandemic.
An experienced contractor has a good sense of what kind of contingency funds owners should hold. An owner-designer-builder team with a “work together/compromise” mindset” can design its way out of many of surprises and capitalize on constraints. There will be things that take longer or simply cost more, but we’ll find places to save money, or increase revenue opportunities and we will emerge with a great project. Never fails!
IT’S ALL GOOD
Whether taking on new construction or a renovation, project teams face similar processes and issues. The team brings a wealth of experience and it is never a surprise when an owner’s goals exceed their budget, or that an existing space comes with constraints that create both unique opportunities and challenges.
That said, we move so fast, on such tightly scheduled project phases that we all often need the simple reminder of this fact, especially if the client is dealing with conditions that interrupts their vision. The auto dealer has seen his space evolve more than he ever imagined it could or would. And yet, to his immense credit, with each new situation that arises he is the first to remind the team of what new interesting aspect has been drawn out and state, “You know, this is gonna be great!” And he’s right.
Kevin J. Cleary is a principal at Baylis Architects and is active in commercial and urban mixed-use projects.