[design '98]

Make sure 'fringe' buildings stay part of the community

Bassetti Architects


Seattle is full of great old buildings, some even important enough to be city, state or national landmarks. These buildings have special architectural merit, social and political history or exquisite qualities that speak of the past.

Structures like Smith Tower, Franklin High School, the Space Needle and buildings in Pioneer Square and Pike Place Market help define Seattle to the nation and are due every ounce of respect we can afford them.

But what about fringe buildings? The ones that aren't eligible for official landmark status because of they are just not old enough or important enough as examples of design, or the ones with owners that simply lack interest in turning them into landmarks?

These "fringe" buildings have real value. They are neighborhood landmarks - the kinds of buildings that orient you to a place, a neighborhood with its own distinctive history.

The Bertschi School

The Bertschi School classroom building reinvigorates a Capitol Hill neighborhood.

Think of Capitol Hill. The original houses that now hold the Richard Hugo House and the Bertschi School help maintain the characteristics of their neighborhood though they are located on streets that would otherwise be very commercial in quality. Older structures are great placeholders while development occurs around them. Think of the buildings at Howell and Yale, where RCNDY and Porsche Parts are now found.

Fringe buildings also have intrinsic attributes not generally found in newer structures. The quality of wood found in older buildings is typically of much higher structural quality. The wood tends to be from old growth trees, of higher density and strength. The framing timbers may also be very large, in sizes that are generally not available today. Renovations of interior space increasingly feature these large framing timbers by exposing them. Windows that open, wood plank floors and high ceilings are additional features common only in older buildings.

Preserving older buildings usually requires an adjustment in expectations and attitude compared with new construction. There is great economic benefit to being pragmatic about what can be accomplished within an existing building.

There are several key steps to developing a good plan for building re-vitalization.

Understand your reasons for preserving a building. Your primary goals for a building will drive many decisions about how you allocate money to its rehabilitation. Common priorities include maintaining the "look" of an old building - which translates into spending money on architectural details and preservation of existing materials; or reducing the cost and schedule of getting a building to a usable state - which results in a focus on building maintenance issues and adapting your program to fit within existing spaces.

Other goals include extending the useful life of an existing building, improving the quality of leaseable space and establishing an architectural character for a larger development. Articulating your goals at the start will make decisions that you face during the work much easier.

Franklin High School

The Beaux Arts splendor of Franklin High School was recaptured eight years ago, benefiting the Mt. Baker neighborhood and students alike. The architect of the renovation is Bassetti Architects.

Thoroughly evaluate the existing condition. This is the most important step to take. Older buildings can be full of surprises. Be sure to look at hazardous materials, seismic capacity, deterioration of materials, life safety systems, energy requirements and compliance with the American with Disabilities Act.

Based on your project goals, you may decide not to address everything you discover during the evaluation. But do not paint walls without fixing a leaking roof! A good evaluation will help you set up a sensible and well-budgeted plan.

Work with designers and contractors who have experience with older buildings. There are many ways to repair, upgrade and reuse an existing building. Experienced architects, engineers and contractors will understand the options available, be able to converse with code officials for appropriate interpretations and interface new construction compatibly with existing. They will also have much better information when estimating renovation construction costs.

Set aside a healthy construction contingency. It bears repeating: older buildings can be full of surprises. A good evaluation and experienced team will help you determine where you are likely to run into surprises and will also advise you to anticipate spending approximately 10 percent of your construction budget on unforeseen conditions. Do not save money here. There is no relief from broken underground pipes and rotting wood.

The attractions of a renovated older building when compared to a new building are many and tenant demand appears to be at least as strong as it is for newer buildings for comparable space.

The Zymogenetics Building is a good example; the turn-of-the-century steam plant has been remade into biotech offices and labs. How about Pier 59. Once a warehouse, it is now the Seattle Aquarium.

To tenants and the community, older buildings provide continuity with the past, contain design elements not found elsewhere and provide neighborhood cohesiveness.

These buildings are measures of time. Each one has its own story. Renovation does not rewrite it, but instead serves to revive that memory for future generations.

Marilyn Brockman, principal at Bassetti Architects, is currently leading design teams for the reuse of Mary Gates Hall at the University of Washington, West Seattle High School, Town Hall in 4th Church of Christ Scientist and the Bertschi School.

Jack Wiggins, principal at RSP/EQE, is currently managing structural renovations of Old Main at Western Washington University, the King County Airport Terminal Building and Bellevue City Hall.

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