Changing the use of a building is akin to undergoing a heart transplant. Just as it takes a surgeon with special skills to successfully complete complex operations, the same is true of an architect when a property needs to undergo intricate renovations that transform the building’s “heart.”
Just as the heart surgeon essentially re-wires the cardiovascular system when transplanting a new heart, architecturally changing a building’s use requires navigating knotty building design challenges that may involve:
- Multiple building codes and zoning resolutions
- Marrying new and existing engineering
- Creatively incorporating historic preservation requirements
- Scaling size restrictions that might call for micro-designing down to the square inch or up to multiple lots and acres
These projects can sometimes be hard nuts to crack, typically requiring typically requiring creative thinking, ample time and unique skillsets, troublesome approvals and an acute level of problem solving when dealing with existing conditions. However, the rewards to owners and clients are extremely worthwhile.
Steven Kratchman Architect PC (SKAPC)’s portfolio of complex projects ranges from commercial buildings and historic preservation projects in Manhattan and townhouses in Brooklyn, New York, to single-family residences in Westchester County and the Hudson Valley to co-ops in New Jersey. Many of these heart transplant projects involve pre-existing buildings with multiple complexity factors, such as conversions, construction in occupied buildings and additions or enlargements where new and existing engineering must work together seamlessly.
The heart is to human life as building use and services is to building functionality. Like surgeons conducting a heart transplant, in order to give older buildings a second life, the SKAPC team has reinvigorated many properties where the owner or developer sought to completely change the use of an existing building. We refer to these projects as “custom-custom” because off-the-shelf, cookie-cutter solutions cannot be relied on, and creativity and brainstorming are essential at every phase.
A condominium conversion of the Holy Rosary Catholic School and Rectory in Brooklyn is an example. The project was spearheaded by the Community Preservation Corporation’s (CPC) development arm, which had a program for buying disused buildings and creating subsidized, for-sale, family-sized units. SKAPC was retained as architect of record for the project, which was shelved by the CPC after multiple design phases. Built in 1922 and closed in the mid-1990s, the landmark building sat abandoned until it was sold to a developer who hired SKAPC to transform the 57,720-square-foot facility.
The rectory was converted to market rate rentals by modifying some of the nonconforming egress stairs. The school’s basement-level cafeteria was converted to parking once a side yard ramp was created, and the back of the stage in the “gymnatorium” was demolished to build windows to increase the flow of light and air to the building. While the school’s “skin” was dilapidated and ultimately rebuilt, the developer saw in the structure’s details the same character elements we did. This allowed us to preserve and re-use lighting, wainscoting, tiling, carved stone, handrails, high-pointed windows and other elements of the Renaissance Revival structure.
Navigating the Maze
Additions and enhancements to more modern structures in both built-up urban areas and rural environments can also be complex. Expanding living spaces and upgrading baths and kitchens — the “heart” of the home — often require adherence to multiple building codes and zoning requirements.
It takes a specific expertise to determine what may be required under current and decades-old codes, how they will integrate and which will ensure greater safety. This expertise has become part of our firm’s culture — and we use our knowledge constantly in renovations that call for a high level of innovation.
Marrying New & Old Systems
Climate comfort, energy savings and life safety systems are expected in a built environment today, but standards from previous eras were far lower. This means many projects start with existing structures where new engineering is not possible. When new systems must be married to existing systems, complexity ensues, and we must understand the assumptions and principles of earlier generations in order to design and specify the new systems.
More Than Restoration
Landmark building projects are complex by nature, and it is rare that a historic preservation project involves restoration only. Client and project requirements typically mandate functional changes, engineering updates and accommodations for tenant needs that create a tension between old and new. We resolve this tension through an often intricate “operation” that integrates both worlds.
In New York City, the local community board and the Landmark Preservation Committee (LPC) must assess all design proposals. Since the LPC is entrusted to preserve the city’s history, a designer must understand the designation report that results from the preservationist’s research documenting the building’s historic features.
Landmark buildings can be designated from the exterior and/or the interior. In the case of Manhattan’s historic Harmonie Club, Stanford White’s design is doubly recognized.
Based on inspection reports filed by SKAPC, dilapidated terra cotta stones needed to be replaced at many locations on the façade of the eight-story Beaux-Arts building to comply with the City’s Department of Buildings’ (DOB) Façade Inspection & Safety Program (FISP). Additional “flagged” façade elements included cracked glass, small, boarded-up windows, aging wall sconces and “temporary” exterior painting cleanups that were more than 30 years old.
The Harmonie board partnered with us to facilitate an extensive restoration rather than simply create a “quick fix” to meet the DOB requirements. Various omplexity factors included working with the only two terra cotta manufacturers in North America that could replicate the building’s historic detailing to create a seamless marriage of new and old. Completed approximately two years after inception, the fully-restored façade reflects its original beauty and classic design — and breathes new life into the city’s landmark district.
The ability to conquer the twists and turns and reduce complexity to a mix of simpler elements can ensure that the core — or heart — of an existing, out-of-use structure is revitalized for contemporary times.
Steven Kratchman Architect P.C. (SKAPC) is an award-winning architecture and design firm that adds value and breathes new life into underused and over- looked properties. The 20-year-old, Manhattan-based firm works with developers of commercial and residential properties throughout New York City, the Hudson River Valley and along New Jersey’s Gold Coast to re-purpose and reinvigorate existing spaces with design concepts that are both sophisticated and practical. Founder Steven Kratchman has evolved SKAPC into a full-service resource for developers, property owners and managers who increasingly seek to retrofit existing spaces for new purposes.