Commercial makeover

By Daniel Savickas
Wednesday, March 1, 2010
Builder News

Successfully convert commercial structures to living spaces

Giving old buildings new life drives builders and designers to convert old commercial buildings into residential housing. Beyond the aesthetics, builders can profit from transforming unused commercial structures into viable residential living spaces

In fact, the U.S. has up to 50 percent too much commercial space, and with new spaces being added every day, it is only a matter of time until some of these spaces will be up for grabs.

In January’s “History Lesson” (January 2009, p. MM11), which looked at converting historical buildings to residential, interviewed builders saw the reuse of a building as the greenest possible building practice out there, since it saves thousands of pounds of brick, plaster and other building materials from being turned into waste and simply occupying space in landfills.

When converting commercial spaces to residential, there are quite a few things to take into account that are different from historical renovations.

Many of the more modern commercial spaces for sale, or abandoned, are plagued by bad location and zoning restrictions. Today’s retail spaces tend to sit atop miles of paved parking lots or are strategically located directly off of a noisy freeway exit. Though often thought of as ideal for commercial projects, this isn’t the case for residential projects.

Bad location is one thing, but poor indoor and outdoor air quality due to location is another thing completely. This is why most builders tend to stick with older historical buildings, located closer to downtown areas and amenities, and off of the freeway, when trying to convert a project into residential housing.

Key to conversion: finding the right building

However, if one can find a modern commercial building for sale, even a big-box retail store, in a good location, there are some creative residential possibilities. Tom Glass, of Glass Construction Inc., who has done a number of conversions from commercial to residential, thinks these spaces could lend themselves quite nicely to artists’ lofts with their high ceilings and open space.

But for the most part, designers and builders stick with older buildings for adaptive reuse projects, and for good reason. Not only do these older buildings usually come with more intricate details, like crown mouldings and trim work, inside and outside of the building, that simply aren’t cost-effective to put into newer buildings, but the buildings also tend to be built more structurally sound.

“The structures are usually really well built, they were built to last,” Glass says. “And you don’t have the problems, all the wear and tear, that come across with residential houses. You also don’t have the settlement issues in the floors that causes them to go out of level, because in these old commercial buildings the foundations are concrete or brick.”

A perfect example of this is the conversion of an old bank to a residential house on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., done by Glass’s company. The building, which was put up in 1912 and made out of limestone, was described by Glass as being rock-solid.

“It worked well for the owner because he had an extensive collection of artwork,” says Glass, “so he was looking for a lot of open space with wide ceilings.”

With 22-foot-high ceilings, the bank was a perfect fit.

“It was a happy marriage of styles, and it saved an old building that would’ve probably been torn down or made into a 7-Eleven. This bank was basically slated for demolition when the owner saw it and fell in love with it,” Glass says. “It worked out great for what his needs were.”

The 1,400-square-foot bank was converted into a two-bedroom, two-bath residential home with plenty of space to feature artwork.

Glass believes that by combining old styles from the bank, like plaster crown mouldings, and incorporating those styles with modern designs, a really unique aesthetic was created.

Old doesn’t always mean “good”

Old commercial buildings aren’t always a perfect match, but sometimes the location and character are worth dealing with to make the project work.

Nancy Ruddy, Cetra-Ruddy Architecture PLLC, has converted everything from office space and hotels to department stores into residential spaces.

Ruddy claims that one of the best things that historical commercial buildings have to offer is plenty of open floor space, but this is also, in her opinion, one of the toughest things about converting commercial spaces.

“The biggest challenge is those buildings have a much bigger floor plate than residential spaces,” Ruddy says. With residential spaces, codes and law require each space have a certain amount of light and fresh air. “So finding buildings that will allow you to get legal rooms can be tough. The historic buildings are different animals to convert.”

“In New York you can’t be more than 30 feet from the wall to window, so 30 feet is what you want, but often in old commercial buildings the floor plans are 100 feet.”

Ruddy’s firm has gone so far as to take off the rear wall of some of these old buildings and move them closer to the street in order to meet code.

“We’ve reduced the size of the building and moved the back wall up to get legal light and air. When you don’t do that, the challenge is how to create great rooms in such a big building,” Ruddy says.

Moving an entire wall to bring a building up to code may seem like a lot of work to some, and others would probably look to tear down the space before going through all of that trouble. But Ruddy agrees with Glass about the value of these old commercial spaces.

“They’re solid and beautiful, and the floors and walls are thicker than builders would build them in today’s economy.”

Ruddy also points out that commercial buildings require space for ducts and air conditioning. When the space is converted, the ducts, which are usually converted by a lowered ceiling, can be removed, creating nice ceiling heights, great for building modern or industrial-looking lofts.

Many developers that convert to residential from larger commercial structures such as abandoned shopping malls or megastores often gut the entire space down to a shell and start from scratch with the mechanicals, ducts, electrical, lighting and insulation.

One advantage of converting office buildings to residential is natural light. Historical office buildings are usually very big on natural light. One office building Ruddy’s firm converted into condos was built in 1897 and already had lots of natural light. On the other hand, modern, post-World War II department stores often make poor conversions for the same reason. Created like a Vegas-style casinos, many have no natural light or windows merely to keep customers from looking outside and thinking about leaving.

Hotel, motel

Ruddy says the ideal commercial buildings to convert to residential spaces are hotels. Hotels are laid out the same way that you’d lay out a residential space with stairwells, elevators, hallways, and lounge and reception areas.

Older abandoned office, hotel and other types of commercial buildings can often be found in up-and-coming areas. Ruddy says these are great opportunities to create value in a neighborhood.

“There are people who convert the buildings that chop them up and create lofts. We try to keep the beautiful proportions. How you convert it, and being sensitive to the space and how to cut it up, is key,” she says.

National Association of the Remodeling Industry Associated Builders and Contractors Better Business Bureau

Glass Construction is a member of NARI (National Association of the Remodeling Industry), National Trust for Historic Preservation, ABC (Associated Builders and Contractors) and the BBB (Better Business Bureau).