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  • Writer's pictureRaffi Arzoumanian

Embracing Serendipity: The Art of Adaptive Reuse

By Raffi Arzoumanian


"Regardless of what the program or design goals are, adaptive reuse is always a delicate balance of recognizing an opportunity, managing costs, maintaining sustainability, navigating philosophical and physical challenges, and hopefully producing something that blends architectural heritage with innovation.”


Adaptive reuse is a practice within architecture that continues to reshape buildings and cities across the world. It refers to the process of converting a building to a use or uses other than what is existing – and is a decision often driven by a great idea paired with great timing. These project types are innately serendipitous in both the journey they take and the results they yield, which are always unique and rewarding. 


Chicago is a haven of interesting examples of building  conversions which have preserved existing structures and created appealing new uses in the process. Adaptive reuse has significance in Chicago at this moment in time for many reasons. It helps fulfill constant demand for housing, especially in locations where deindustrialization has rendered numerous buildings vacant and unused; and reusing buildings can be cost-effective and environmentally friendly if done under the right conditions.  


At the same time, adaptive reuse can be viewed as a tool for bridging the gap between where we were as a society and where we are going. Deindustrialization is just one type of gap. Another more current example is increasing vacancies of office buildings. Converting these to residential as more companies accommodate employees working from home is both an opportunity and a challenge being widely discussed in the design world right now – and another marker of a societal shift. 


Regardless of what the program or design goals are, adaptive reuse is always a delicate balance of recognizing an opportunity, managing costs, maintaining sustainability, navigating philosophical and physical challenges, and hopefully producing something that blends architectural heritage with innovation. 


Challenges in Adaptive Reuse 

Challenges in implementing adaptive reuse projects vary greatly from building to building. Multiple considerations, including the age of the existing building, code compliance, and utilities can impact the design and the budget. In many cases, these projects are more challenging than new construction, but the potential for both saving money and minimizing demolition waste are compelling reasons to proceed with reuse.  


The existing building’s structure and its cosmetics were both significant challenges for the Matrix Club, a recent adaptive reuse project in which my team and I transformed an existing Sam’s Club into an arts, performance, and private event venue in Naperville. The size and volume of the space were a perfect fit for the client’s new intended use, but the physical layout and the bare-bones aesthetics  needed rethinking. 


While an existing “big box” facility might seem like a blank slate and a designer’s dream, significant changes were needed to accommodate a new program. On the interior, we relocated structural beams to achieve clear spans of space that would facilitate inclusion of a large banquet hall as part of the new club’s program. Outside, we needed to create an attractive façade that would mark the building as a cultural and events venue rather than a big-box retail store. We removed a portion of the front façade and introduced a 105 ft long and 27.5 ft high curtain wall with a glass canopy supported by curvilinear fins. This element, combined with prominent exterior signage, announces the building’s new use and draws visitors into the space.  


These innovative measures contributed to the building’s overall transformation from retail to a multi-use cultural and events space – opening up the building inside for a variety of functions while repositioning its image and visual identity on the exterior. 


Using What’s There 

My approach to adaptive reuse is to utilize as much of the existing structure as possible. But this is always an exercise in weighing the pros and cons with respect to multiple factors – the project’s budget, the history and heritage of the building, the requirements for the new use, and so on. Once I’ve completed a programming process with my client, the next task is to determine how to maximize reuse of as many of the existing building’s features as possible. 


For the Elmwood Collection in Skokie, the developer wished to convert an all-brick, one-story windowless building into 3-story townhomes. Despite how inhospitable such a building would seem for residential use, not only did we preserve the majority of the existing structure, we also leveraged its industrial history as design inspiration for the new residences.  


By building upward from the existing structure and incorporating large warehouse-style windows, we created seven spacious living environments from a previously nondescript brick warehouse. Inside the townhomes, exposed brick, high ceilings, and iron stair railings all reference the industrial origins of the building while creating an urban loft living aesthetic.  


The Elmwood Collection is an example of how a disused building, seemingly stuck in its previous life and limited in function, can actually serve as the foundation for something much more ambitious and visionary.  


Preservation vs. New Construction 

To preserve or demolish? That’s the question that has sparked many intense adaptive reuse debates. There are many aging buildings that can and should be preserved for their architectural, cultural, or historical significance. But in any rational debate, all these factors must be weighed alongside social, economic, and financial considerations. Would tearing down the building deprive people of an important need? On the other hand, would preserving the building deny people the potential of something new and transformative? 


There’s validity in tearing down as well as preserving. The good news is that either scenario provides fertile ground for innovation. In the case of preservation and adaptive reuse, when an existing facility’s features serendipitously align with the client’s desired program for reuse, and a careful balance between the needs of the future and appropriate regard for the past can be struck, it will be successful in serving its new users, perhaps for generations to come. 



 

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