The archetypical New England mill is the original big box. With plain exterior façades enclosing large areas of undifferentiated floor space, these immense structures hark back to the early Industrial Revolution, when they harnessed power from adjacent rivers while providing work for entire towns.
Built in the 1860s, the Linwood Cotton Mill in Northbridge, Mass., brought jobs and life to the surrounding village. It was vacated in the 1980s and later used a storage facility— not an ideal use for the historic building.
"It's demoralizing when the biggest building in the neighborhood is sitting empty," says The Architectural Team (TAT) principal-in-charge Mike Binette.
Developer EA Fish & Associates recognized the site's potential and engaged its long-time collaborator TAT to create 75 one- and two-bedroom senior apartments on the historic site. The team included amenities such as large common areas to facilitate social interactions among the residents.
"[It's about creating] spaces that are engaging," Binette says. "You want people to walk by an activity to take part, or just to see what's going on and who's coming in."
Each floor has its own communal area adjacent to the elevators, but the library is the principal activity space for the entire complex. It is located between the building's two wings in a separate structure that used to house the mill's boiler. Other senior-friendly design features include pull cords in the ADA-compliant bathrooms and wide corridors for easy wheelchair and walker access. In the few years since it opened, the project has been a hit with tenants, maintaining a near 100% occupancy rate.
The project required four years of planning and construction, as well as a creative approach to financing. “We utilized four different types of credits,” EA Fish managing director Matt Mittelstadt explains. “The 9% federal credit, the state low-income tax credit, as well as state and federal historic credits.” The Town of Northbridge contributed by forgiving some local fees, including about $600,000 in sewer connections.
The tax credits came with stringent requirements from the National Park Service that outlined how to preserve the building’s historic features. “There’s not a lot of detail fabric in an industrial building, so what’s left is important,” Binette says. The nature of the space is important, too—and TAT created plans that evoke the original, open industrial aesthetic.
A tight column grid—just 8 feet in one direction—complicated the task, but provided an opportunity as well: “Exposed columns enhance the industrial flavor of the building,” Binette says. While they posed some organizational issues in the placement of kitchens and baths, TAT was able to work around them without missing a beat. “We have exposed wood ceilings in the units because we achieved our fire rating though the 4-inch wood deck,” TAT project manager Steven Regal explains.
Acoustical ratings are achieved through 1 1/4 inches of gypcrete with sound matting on top of the original decking, providing a smooth surface for new flooring. While the unit’s exterior walls received new insulation with gypsum board sheathing, TAT left the brick masonry exposed at the common areas to reveal the historic character.