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Breathing New Life into Aging Facilities
By Dale R. Yoder, AIA

Breathing New Life into Aging Facilities… with all the talk these days about Green Design and Sustainability, and alongside it LEED® projects, there is nothing more green than breathing new life into existing building stock! It can be giving new life to tired facilities that are well worn and need some tender loving care, yet more or less serve the same functions. Or it can involve radical transformation in which it would be considered an adaptive re-use… design changes to reposition the facility to be more appropriate and useful for a new function and use.

What does sustainability really imply? The definitions according to Merriam-Webster are…

a. “…able to be used without being completely used up
or destroyed”
b. “…involving methods that do not completely use up or
destroy natural resources”
c. “…able to last or continue for a long time” 1

All three have relevancy to the architectural design world, and I’ll briefly address each one in relation to Breathing New Life into Aging Facilities. In the first definition, “…able to be used without being completely used up or destroyed,” 1 it may seem like a facility has outlived its usefulness… and occasionally that may be true… but we believe more times than not, if structurally sound, we can help reposition it in a new, fresh and vibrant way! Let’s not be too quick to judge it as “…being completely used up or destroyed,” 1 rather look to the possibilities!

In the second definition, “…involving methods that do not completely use up or destroy natural resources,” 1 being good stewards of our natural resources is important, but too many times Green Design gets viewed narrowly in this manner. Whenever feasible… whenever it makes good economic sense… or whenever it is a matter of principle, making design choices to implement wise choices that preserves natural resources is good decision-making. Yet if we destroy an existing facility that could have had new life breathed into it… then we believe we have turned our backs on the most Green thing we could do… no matter the wise stewardship choices made while building new… which ties into the third definition.

In the third definition, and this is the one that resonates the most with my passion, is “…able to last or continue for a long time.” 1 Anything… and everything… we can do to envision repurposing existing building stock moves its usefulness and duration into the next generation… in essence enabling it “…to last or continue for a long time” 1!

We at Cornerstone Design-Architects, believe that there is great value in Breathing New Life into Aging Facilities, as good stewards of what we currently own or possess, and/or to improve our environments by breathing new life into blighted buildings and neighborhoods. Not only do we have a passion for Breathing New Life into Aging Facilities and coming alongside of transforming the facility of a client… but we live with this passion each day we are working in our own office.

In 2007, we were working with the former CEO of Auntie Anne’s Corporation to reposition the old Post Office Building in Downtown, Lancaster, Pennsylvania as their corporate headquarters. I asked to see the rest of the building and walked into an old attic space… storage since the building was constructed in 1928 and said, “Wow, this would make a nice office! Would you consider converting it? He said, “Let’s talk”.

An underutilized space transformed into a unique and inviting work environment. We added natural light via roof windows, but needed to keep the ones along both street exposures below the balustrade, to preserve the historical look of the building. We also added a mezzanine to gain more floor area and the ability to see across the cityscape on the south side, allowing wonder daylight to cascade down over the workstations below. The repurposing of this space has enabled us to showcase our design talents as our mission states, “To Responsively and Creatively Design Facilities of Significance” where the client defines “Significance”… in this case it was our definition that we responded to and found creative sustainable solutions and a breathe of new life to reposition the space for years into the future!

Breathing New Life into Aging Facilities can make economic sense. After the Great Recession of 2008, many of us have made economic adjustments and have had to rethink how we spend our limited resources. Plans for new and improved have sometimes transitioned into “having to make due.” Yet, that isn’t necessarily a bad thing! It has forced us to be more responsive and creative with what is already in place… maybe even forcing a new kind of good stewardship that is very Green in approach… giving more long-term life and viability to building stock already in place.

For example, we have worked with a few senior living projects in which creative solution finding has transformed tired and aging facilities into vibrant homelike environments for their resident population. It can make good economic sense to spend on transformation rather than replace with new, more costly facilities!

One example is Homestead Village in East Hempfield Township, Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. They had developed a master plan that included the development of a new health center. The economic times pushed that reality well out into the future and we were selected to create households in their existing facility to transition them away from the institutional model that existed.

We found ways to capture volume under the roof structure, arrange the households with a shared commercial kitchen between them, while each household has their own resident kitchen, dining and living rooms. The planning also allows for a phase two with modest additions that will allow the introduction of a third household for memory support care. The economics forced creative solution finding, but the end result was not only affordable, and very much transformed the living experience of the resident!

Another senior living example is Chapel Pointe in Carlisle Borough, Pennsylvania. After looking at potential health center renovations numerous times in the past ten years, the decision was made to create three households with private rooms, and maintain the 69 licensed beds. A contractor had suggested expanding out and into the lower level of an adjacent independent living building, but the Department of Health regulations would not enable expansion into a two story of that construction type. What to do?

The next solution suggested by the design-build contractor was to displace the apartments and utilize the area of the footprint for the existing building to create the expansion for the health center.

At a design meeting, we suggested a concept to place the third household at a second floor level perpendicular to the existing health center, essentially building out over part of it. The concept was embraced and the best part was that it saved approximately $1.5 million in budget, while preserving all the independent units that existed. In fact, with a strategic placement of the elevator and pedestrian bridges, the second floor of the independent living apartments were also made accessible!

Empty retail spaces are plentiful and/or shopping centers/malls have a high percentage of vacancies as supposed newer and better centers are built, attracting tenants from older, tired facilities. With creative thinking and planning, such spaces and facilities can have new life breathed into them for many different functions. Some are even being transitioned for senior living and big box stores can make a nice conversion into a church facility. Often parking is plentiful since the retail function already had many spaces in place and the land development issues related to greenfield site become less of a factor, pending the local municipality regulations.

Several years ago, we converted a former Kmart store into a 600 seat church facility in southern York County, Pennsylvania. Grace Fellowship was a church plant from a congregation in northern Maryland, and needed economical space being a recent start up site. Several columns were removed, and sizable girders installed, in order to provide more clear sightlines to the platform, but a building in much deterioration had new life breathed into it in a dynamic way. We sometimes immediately gravitate to the new, but this is a shining example of being responsible stewards of existing building stock and repositioning for usefulness
for years to come!

Warehouse spaces… are good potential adaptive re-use facilities if one has a client with a broad enough vision and the courage/money to invest. Recently, we have had the privilege of working with a client that purchased a vacant warehouse in Landisville, Pennsylvania with a vision to transition that facility into the largest indoor sports and recreation facility in America (14 acres under roof). Numerous rows of columns were eliminated and support provided by steel girder trusses to provide open spaces for indoor fields. One area can transition from four indoor soccer fields to ten indoor field hockey pitches to thirty volleyball courts, as well as provide an expansive exhibition hall. Soon to be constructed, as the final phase is a 135 room, three story hotel and 265 seat restaurant with half the rooms and a portion of the restaurant fronting on an indoor street. This facility has also become the home for the National Training Center for the USA Olympic Field Hockey Team.

I hope you are catching the vision about Breathing New Life into Aging Facilities because it is a very responsible and green approach, utilizing existing building stock. Designing new facilities is enjoyable, but breathing new life into what already exists seems more responsible. Yet the greatest obstacle can be the zoning, historical and building code environments which become more and more restrictive over time. For success in Breathing New Life into Aging Facilities, I dream of a day when Federal, State and local municipalities provide some balance in regulations to make it economically feasible, yet safe for the occupants, and provide up front assurances so developers and owners can proceed confidently with such revitalization absent from fear of roadblocks down the road. Let’s together figure out ways to Breath New Life into Aging Facilities!

1. Merriam – Webster online dictionary at www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/sustainable

About the author: Dale R. Yoder, AIA is president of Cornerstone Design-Architects in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. He shares his passion for designing dynamic worship, educational and performance spaces calling on his Bachelor of Science in Architecture, (Cum Laude) Temple University, and a Master of Arts in Theological Studies, (Magna Cum Laude) Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. Cornerstone Design -Architects’ Vision and Master Planning programs are extremely successful as a result of his mission-centered guidance and experience. Dale also recently attended The Harvard University, Graduate School of Design, “Theaters for a New Century, “Housing and Services for a New Generation of Elders.”

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