“There are no second acts in American lives,” wrote F. Scott Fitzgerald. Had the legendary scribe been around during the past 40 years, he might have rewritten that famous line, at least where adaptive reuse is concerned. The practice of breathing new life into old commercial buildings is nothing if not a second chance for former factories, schools, agricultural structures, churches, and even gas stations to be reborn as one-of-a-kind residential properties. Rehabbing an existing structure can mean added red tape, time, and money, but the pros outweigh the cons: finished projects that are sustainable and environmentally responsible, financially successful, and enhance the community with a sense of character and history.

“You have to do as much research as possible about what you can’t see,” advises Adam Ginsburg, co-chairman of GDC Properties in Hawthorne, N.Y., and developer of 220 Water Street in New York City, a shoe factory turned luxury apartment building. “We used radar on the floors to find out where the rebar was so we knew the pattern before we started.”

Even with plenty of due diligence, there still can be glitches. When a massive boulder was found under 220 Water Street, it meant rerouting the tie-in to the city’s storm drainage system. Because of unpredictable occurrences, contingent funds are crucial—as is an ability to adapt quickly. Architect Tyler Engle, designer of the Madrona Live/Work residence in Seattle, agrees. “There are always surprises—whether it’s a sink hole, dry rot, or reframing, you have to be prepared.”

Meeting current codes can be another complication when you’re changing the intended use of the building, says Rachel Chung, studio director at Sorg Architects. When the firm redid a Washington, D.C., fire station in the city’s historic Capitol Hill neighborhood, “wall and egress ratings had to be completely re-evaluated.” If the property is historically significant, there usually are more parties involved and it may cost more in design time and finishes. But there’s an upside. “Make use of federal historic tax preservation credits,” Ginsburg advises, adding that “historically accurate materials and details do add cost, but the credits offset them.”

Despite the effort, the double-threat of historic flavor and fine design adds value to a project. “We strive for a balance between respecting history and delivering modern conveniences,” says Ginsburg, who knows that character-plus-luxury gives him a leg up on competitors.

Madrona Live/Work

Located in Seattle’s Madrona neighborhood, this century-old storefront originally was a grocery, then a malt shop, and most recently an office. Engle, of local firm Tyler Engle Architects, redesigned the space for a client who had remarried and wanted a fresh start in a new home.

The couple needed an office, a residence, and a place to showcase their fabulous art collection, as well as a home flexible enough to host events for large groups or intimate dinner parties. Engle took a 1,600-square-foot rectangle and divided it up so as to create rooms in a progression that offers privacy from the street. Office and gallery spaces are up front. An ipe-clad service core—containing the kitchen and a powder room—creates a buffer between the entry and the rest of the home.

The living and dining areas are in an interior courtyard under a huge skylight that opens up the center of the plan. “It feels like you’re going into a clearing,” Engle says. A bedroom suite and another office and bathroom are in the rear of the rectangle, with clerestory windows allowing natural light into those spaces.

The client uses a wheelchair, so Engle designed the home with what he calls “a subtle accessibility.” There are no rugs, and radiant heat warms the concrete floors. This was a budget-driven job, but that very simplicity gave the homeowners the modern look they wanted. Engle used finish ply cabinets with no veneer and a finished edge pull. “We saved on hardware, and they’re easy for the client to grab,” he says.

With its recycled building envelope and basic finishes, this project is both green and cost-effective. “It made sense from an environmental standpoint as well as a financial one,” Engle says. “With the base cost of the building plus improvements, it’s still at market value.”

Madrona Project Team
Architect  Tyler Engle Architects, Seattle
Builder Christensen Construction, Bellevue, Wash.

The Station Condominiums

How cool would it be to live in an old firehouse? That’s what developers of the Station Condominiums thought, too, when they bought an 80-year-old fire station on a residential block in Washington’s historic Capitol Hill neighborhood.

Sorg Architects was hired in the preconstruction phase to evaluate the run-down, two-story brick property. Chung and her team from Sorg did deep research about repairing the facade, looking at vintage photos to get the particulars right, especially the windows, she says.

“You never know the full extent of the work until the contractor gets in there,” Chung says. “We may have to adjust the design during construction.” They were all pleasantly surprised when, during the demolition phase, contractors found original second-floor windows that had been bricked over. That discovery made the facade more authentic, as did masonry repointing and the low wrought iron fencing added to the front yard. A new, gated side yard area encloses a private garden for residents.

Inside, Chung created unique spaces to appeal to a market of young, urban professionals. The five condominium units range from a 600-square-foot, one-bedroom loft to a 2,500-square-foot, three-bedroom multifloor home. Adaptive reuse is a sustainable endeavor in and of itself, but this project pushes it further, with original brick walls and ceiling timbers, plus energy-efficient lighting and appliances.

The Station Project Team
Architect/Interior Designer  Sorg Architects, Washington, D.C.
Builder  Hamel Builders, Washington
Developer  Argos Group, Washington

220 Water Street

The Brooklyn neighborhood of DUMBO (Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass) has been transformed in the past decade. The former manufacturing area’s success is due in part to developers who are willing to take on adaptive reuse to preserve the neighborhood’s deep industrial roots to appeal to urban buyers and renters. The former Hanan & Son shoe company was recently revitalized and rehabilitated as 220 Water Street. Architects reworked the 19th-century building into 134 studio, one-, and two-bedroom luxury loft rental apartments.

In massive old factories like this one, providing access to light and air be challenging. GDC’s Ginsburg got lucky, because 220 originally was built with a central courtyard and side yard. The new plan wraps single-loaded corridors tight to the courtyard so none of the long, loftlike units are interior facing. “Those units would have been less desirable,” Ginsburg explains.

The courtyard also allows for the most striking part of the property—a 30-foot-high, sky-lit lobby that looks more like a trendy hotel than a rental building—to take center stage. The vast space is equipped with a coffee bar, lounge areas, and tenant concierge services. Still, since it’s a historic building, that played a factor in many of the design decisions. “We sweat the details,” Ginsburg says. “In the beginning it looked like a tired, filthy, dilapidated factory, and now it’s clean and sleek, with historically accurate new windows, top-of-the-line amenities, and a rich patina that gives it character.”

220 Water Street Project Team
Architect/Designer  Perkins Eastman, New York
Builder  The Rinaldi Group, Secaucus, N.J.
Interior Designer Peggy Leung Design, New York
Developer  GDC Properties, Hawthorne, N.Y.

Learn more about markets featured in this article: Seattle, WA, Washington, DC.