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DCD Magazine

Saving Time and Money with Adaptive Re-Use Projects
By Pam Hunter

Stegenga + PARTNERS reworked the interior of a former Tumi luggage warehouse to a wellness center that included an Olympic-sized pool and a wellness center, as well as space for physician offices and conference rooms.As the big discount stores like Walmart and Kmart have come to dominate a sizable portion of the retail market over the past few decades, their simple, box-like design has become a part of the American landscape. But what happens when a store "outgrows" its existing space and moves to larger, more spacious digs? While in some cases, the buildings simply sit vacant, becoming an eyesore until they can be torn down, more stores now are seeking buyers to adapt the buildings for other uses. 

As the amount of land available for new development in the United States continues to shrink, communities are being forced to become more creative about how they build. Adaptive-reuse and historic restoration projects allow owners to work with an existing building and rework the interior to suit their specific needs. Builders and architects say that adaptive re-use and historical restoration projects are the wave of the future, as land available for new development becomes more and more scarce. 

Paul Stegenga, a principal with Stegenga+PARTNERS, an architectural firm in Atlanta, says he has worked on several projects in which health care facilities have purchased box store buildings and commissioned projects to convert them into outpatient medical centers. “In a smaller community, the hospital is generally one of the largest employers in that county.” When Walmart decides to move to a larger space, they typically leave behind a 30,000 square-foot to 35,000 square-foot building. “The only people in the county who can absorb that sort of building are usually the hospitals,” he says. 

Stegenga says that even though the empty big-boxes typically are available at a reduced price because there is no longer a need for them, usually only larger employers such as community hospitals can afford to buy them. 

Stegenga+PARTNERS recently completed an adaptive re-use project converting a former Tumi luggage warehouse to a wellness center in Vidalia, Georgia. The hospital in Vidalia wanted to move some of its outpatient services currently housed at the acute care facility to a more central location downtown, thus freeing up space within the hospital for additional acute care services. 

Stegenga reworked the interior of the 35,000-square-foot building, designing a space that included an Olympic-sized pool and a wellness center, as well as space for physician offices and conference rooms. Stegenga says that within three months of opening, the fitness center had enrolled as much as 10 percent of the population of Vidalia as a paying member. “It was a very popular community outreach effort,” Stegenga says. 

School districts and universities also have converted former big-box stores and warehouses for different uses. Gary Krueger, a principal with SchenkelShultz, an architectural firm in Ft. Myers, Fla., says his firm has worked with local school districts nationally to convert several former stores into schools for elementary, middle or high school students. 

A 100,000-square-foot Kmart store in Lehigh Acres, Florida was converted for educational use by SchenkelShultz architectural firm for the Lee County School District of Southwest Florida.SchenkelShultz recently completed work on a project converting a 100,000-square-foot Kmart store in Lehigh Acres, Fla., a suburb of Fort Myers, for the Lee County School District of Southwest Florida, into a staging school to temporarily house 9th and 10th graders while a permanent high school facility was built. The facility would then similarly accommodate other grade levels as needed by the district in the future.

A primary advantage of adaptive re-use projects is the accelerated timeline. The Lehigh Acres staging school took a little under one year from the date SchenkelShultz was hired to the date the school occupied the space.One of the primary advantages of adaptive re-use projects is the time savings associated with working with an existing structure. Rather than razing an existing building and building a new one from scratch, the design and building team can re-use the building’s foundations and external shell, and sometimes even some of the mechanical and electrical systems. 

“Usually we’ll come in and leave the infrastructure. We’ll leave the foundations, the roof, but then we’ll supplement it—we may need to put in new transformers, or in some instances, totally new electrical systems,” Stegenga says.

On the Lehigh Acres staging school project, Krueger says it took a little under one year from the time his firm was hired to the date the school occupied the space. The accelerated timeline on adaptive re-use projects "is a primary advantage," he says. 

Despite the advantages of re-using an existing structure, adaptive re-use projects are not without their challenges. Many box stores sit adjacent to fast-foot restaurants or small businesses such as banks, which might be appropriate for a shopping center but may pose problems for a site being converted to school grounds. Krueger says the Kmart building that was converted into a school had a service road that connected to an adjacent food store. Krueger’s design team was able to relocate the connector road up to the front of the property, separating the school from the shopping center’s traffic flow. 

“If you’re changing the use of retail to a school, you have to consider in a lot of instances how the building is situated on the highway, or if there are outparcels like restaurants, banks, or fast-food restaurants,” Krueger says. 

Moreover, most box stores have few windows or openings other than the front entrance. Owners of schools and medical centers typically desire more light than the typical box store provides, Krueger says. “It’s not impossible to cut openings into walls, but you have to be careful how you go about it,” he says. 

Also, older buildings frequently need to be upgraded to conform to current seismic and building code requirements, says Jack Livingood, CEO of Big-D Construction, Salt Lake City, Utah. Big-D recently purchased and renovated a historic W.P. Fuller Paint Building warehouse in Salt Lake City for its new headquarters. 

Big-D received tax incentives and low-interest loans to convert the abandoned warehouse into modern and comfortable new corporate headquarters. The new structure is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places and received the U.S. Green Building Council’s Green LEED® certification. 

While restoring a historic building can have significant personal and artistic value, Livingood says, the time and cost savings associated with straightforward adaptive-reuse projects often disappear. “Generally speaking, preserving historic buildings is more labor intensive and more management intensive than just following our modern-day processes in construction.” 

Because restoring buildings can be a painstaking and costly process, the U.S. government offers federal credits of up to 20 percent of the preservation costs. “In fact, many preservation projects just couldn’t happen without that credit,” Livingood says. 

“When you choose to preserve a historic building and adapt its use to something else like we did…you’re making a big commitment to the history of the community and historic preservation in general, but in my opinion, it’s very rarely been the perfect economic decision on a project because it is often as expensive or in some cases more expensive to do what we did than to raze the building and build a new one.” 

Nevertheless, historic restoration projects can be immensely satisfying, Livingood says, adding that both historic preservation and straight adaptive-re-use may be the wave of the future. “Our cities are mature and there’s lot of opportunities to adapt buildings to other uses.” 

Architects and builders interested in working on historic preservation or adaptive re-use projects should make an effort to go out and see some “best in class” projects to see how it is done, Livingood notes. Above all, adaptive re-use and historic restoration require a certain degree of vision and imagination, Livingood suggests. “Sometimes it’s easier for a customer to look at a rendering on a piece of paper of something that’s not built and imagine it being beautiful than it is to look at a dilapidated, run-down structure and sort of imagine that as being beautiful.”

In depth information and construction costs are available on the Lehigh Acres Staging School (EU070120) on page 20 of this issue, and The Wellness Center at Meadows Regional Medical Center, Vidalia, Georgia, case study MD060948 can be accessed at DCD.COM in the DCD Archives.

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