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How Do You Decide to Save a Building?

Next month, we are going to a walk-through of 14 Mill Street in Bellows Falls. The Town is looking for someone to redevelop two buildings on the site, which is down a back street downtown. A developer would enter into a partnership with the Town, which would assist with grant funding and redevelopment, then sell the property to the developer for $1. So what does a developer consider in a situation like this? How do you decide to save a building?

First you look at the building itself. Will the building and its spaces work for your proposed use? Does it have enough parking or access for your needs? What are the floor-to-floor heights? How big are the rooms? What condition is the building in? Is it structurally sound?

The 14 Mill Street property has some lovely details, including brick work and large windows. Most of it is likely still sound, structurally, but some has deteriorated and is no longer safe. The building would not likely be suitable for retail purposes, since it has no street presence on the main square of the village, and vehicular access is a little tricky.

Next you think about the financing for the project. What sources of funding are available to you? Does the project qualify for tax credits? What about grants and loans? What can you count on for project “hard” costs (materials and construction expenses)? What about “soft” costs (designers, lawyers, etc.)?  What is the market like in the area, and what can you get for rents?

Although you would need a lot more detail on the building to know for sure, from first glance, we can tell that 14 Mill Street is in a New Market Tax Credit zone and is likely eligible for Historic Preservation Tax Credits. It may also be eligible for a Community Block Development Grant for Slums and Blight Development. You can assume somewhere around $200/ft2 for hard costs and another $50 or $60/ft2 for soft costs. We have a rough idea of square footage from previous work on the building, which means that we can guess that you would need to get $25/ft2 in rent to support those redevelopment costs if you didn’t have subsidies and tax credits. To make the project viable, you need to get the rental figure down to what the market will bear, somewhere in the $10-$12/ft2 range.

(Let’s take a minute here to remind ourselves that this is ALL guesswork, and that a full feasibility study would be required to make any of these numbers even close to accurate. We’d also like to note that we will be taking a deeper look at each of these funding sources in the future.)

So what’s the next step? A developer would go back after a walk-through and try to firm up the numbers above and analyze the building and its location. A call to an architect might be in order (that’s why we go to the walk-through) to talk about what’s needed for the building, and a rough budget for the project needs to be developed. Then the developer would submit a proposal, with budgets and maybe even rough design sketches, to the Town.  If they are awarded the building, they move on to a more complete look at the feasibility of the project, called a “feasibility study.” And then to design and construction.

 

 

 

 

Adaptive Reuse for Landscapes: The High Line

We most often think of adaptive reuse in terms of restoration of buildings, but the term applies to landscapes and other structures, too. The High Line in Manhattan repurposed an elevated rail track along 10th Avenue to make a park and walking trail through downtown.The project was completed in phases; the first segment opened in 2009, the second in 2011. A third section has been proposed. Before the High Line could be planted, the railroad tracks and support structures had to be renovated, their lead paint removed, and their aging structures properly bolstered.The landscape, designed by James Corner Field Operations and Diller Scofidio + Renfro, echoes the overgrown railroad tracks one can spot throughout the country. Wildflowers and grasses are interspersed between planks and walking paths. Trees provide color and shade, as well as bird habitat, both needed in urban environments.The width of the walking paths varies along the High Line, narrow walking areas opening onto wider gathering and resting spots. In this way, it is much like an urban street that opens onto a plaza, where you might be able to eat at an outdoor café. (Indeed, there are food vendors along the path.)Unlike other parks in New York, High Line does not try to separate visitors from the city, or necessarily provide a respite. It is in the heart of the city (it even runs right through some buildings), and allows access to urban sights and sounds.The High Line presents one answer for what to do with our country’s (and our region’s) aging infrastructure.

Traveling the back roads of northern New England, it’s not uncommon to find long-abandoned carriage roads taken over by the wildflowers and forests. What if we did that intentionally on the unused railroad track the runs so often through the back sides of our towns and villages?

In Brattleboro, we are faced with aging bridges into New Hampshire. Among the many discussions about those bridges and what should happen to them, perhaps we should consider using a High Line approach on the old bridges once they are replaced, allowing better pedestrian access to Mount Wantastiquet and the Connecticut River.

(Photos are from the Friends of the High Line site.)

 

Adaptive Reuse: Preserving Old Buildings for Future Uses

“Adaptive reuse refers to the process of reusing an old site or building for a purpose other than that which it was built or designed for,” according to The American Institute of Architects. In other words, it’s keeping the shell of an old building and redesigning the inside to meet changing needs. When adapting downtown buildings, creating mixed-use spaces is common, with retail and office space on bottom floors and residential space up top.

Very often, adaptive reuse projects include historic preservation requirements that limit what can be changed in the building. These requirements, the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Rehabilitation, are tied to the historic preservation tax credits used to finance many projects. The standards state that, “A property shall be used for its historic purpose or be placed in a new use that requires minimal change to the defining characteristics of the building and its site and environment.”

Opinions vary on what makes something a “defining characteristic,” which means pursuing an adaptive reuse project can involve a little bit of negotiation between an owner, architect, historic consultant, and the National Park Service (which oversees the tax credits). Generally, things that can’t be changed include exterior details (which can be repaired or replaced with exact replicas) and interior details, such as tin ceilings, that mark the building as belonging to a particular time and place and are worth preserving.

At one of our projects, the Brooks House in Brattleboro, Vermont, many of the interior “defining characteristics” of the 1870s hotel had been removed during a renovation in the 1970s that turned it into apartments; most of the remaining interior elements were destroyed in a 2011 fire. The exterior, however, remained largely intact.

The owners of the building wanted to improve the access to the retail spaces on the first floor of the building, make room for a community college and offices on the second floor, and enlarge the apartments on the third and fourth floors. To accommodate these new uses in the building, we needed to completely remove most of the interior partition walls and construct an addition on the rear of the building.  The exterior needed to be preserved to meet historic preservation requirements, and the addition needed to complement, not compete with, the existing building.

When the building is complete, it will have another new life, and will continue to contribute to the vibrant downtown in which it sits. That is the power of adaptive reuse: making something new out of something old. We preserve history to create space for the future.

 

 

 

 

 

Introducing Bob Speck, P.E.

We’d like to introduce you to the newest member of our team, Bob Speck, PE. We are very excited to have him on board, because he brings with him years of structural engineering and design experience as well as a passion for and deep commitment to sustainable design.

Over the past ten years, Bob has pursued several passions, among them the design of custom, efficient, timber-framed homes and barns for builders throughout New England and upstate New York. Clients included The Wadsworth Company, Vermont Timber Frames, and Vermont Barns. During this time he also consulted with Engineering Ventures on timber frame engineering, building sciences, and sustainable design. He is known for his ability to develop design solutions that integrate efficient structural design with sustainable, time-tested building practices and architectural goals.

Bob began his career with 18 years at Ryan-Biggs Associates, where he began as a project engineer and became a business partner with leadership roles in hiring, staff development, and quality improvement. His engineering work while there included hospitals, parking structures, schools and colleges, historic buildings, restaurants, office buildings, residences, and specialty structures. His leadership work while there included serving as president of the Mohawk-Hudson section of the American Society of Civil Engineers. His research work on drifted snow loads on buildings, performed while completing his master’s degree at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, is still referenced in building codes.

In addition to his work in engineering, Bob has 40 years of experience in the snow sports industry, having served as a program manager of the Mountain Sports School at Stratton Mountain and as a training coordinator at the Adaptive Sports Foundation. He continues to enjoy promoting the health and wellness benefits of fitness, yoga, and outdoor adventure. He lives in Manchester, Vermont, with his wife Jo Kirsch, co-owner of Heart of the Village Yoga Studio.

 

(From top: Bob Speck; Barn Frame, Vermont Barns; Home Addition, The Wadsworth Company)

 

Stevens & Associates Expands Architectural Services

Brattleboro-based firm Stevens & Associates, known for its structural and civil engineering and landscape architecture and planning services, has merged with Alan Berry Architect to expand its architectural offerings. The architecture department, headed by architect Alan Lindsay Berry, adds four employees to the Stevens team: Berry, Frank Balla, Timberly Hund, and Stephen Jarosak.  Denny Frehsee, formerly of Williams & Frehsee, has joined the team as a consultant to help with business development, design, and construction oversight.

The architecture team will focus on environmentally sustainable and traditionally inspired design. As members of the Congress for New Urbanism and the U.S. Green Building Council, Stevens & Associates has always valued smart growth and traditional neighborhood design that fits into the historic context of New England’s towns and villages. The firm now brings those values to the architectural realm. “Traditional designs are all around us, and have stood the test of time,” said Bob Stevens, founder of Stevens & Associates. “Most of our clients want buildings that pay homage to the historical context in which they will sit.”

Alan Berry brings over thirty years of experience to Stevens & Associates. His previously Rhode Island based firm, Alan Berry Architect, was known for its emphasis on historic preservation and adaptive reuse as well as the use of energy-efficient technologies. His projects have varied, ranging from civic and liturgical designs to hospitality, recreation, and museum quality restorations. “Regional vernacular and traditional architecture is based on local traditions, needs, and materials,” says Berry. “We are building on the knowledge base of the generations who came before us.”

Offering a full suite of design services will allow Stevens & Associates to give clients a more comprehensive package, according to Stevens. “With everyone under one roof, we can offer better value for the design dollar,” he said.

Stevens & Associates has several architectural projects already underway, including the Brooks House redevelopment in Brattleboro, the Dot’s Restaurant redevelopment in Wilmington, and an art barn renovation and addition for Hilltop Montessori School in Brattleboro.

 

 

Algiers Housing Nears Completion

The 17-unit Algiers Village Housing project in Guiford is nearing completion, with construction set to finish this summer. Owned and developed by Windham & Windsor Housing Trustthe new construction will house income eligible tenants. Stevens & Associates worked with Duncan Wisniewski Architecture, providing civil and structural engineering for the project.

The project site was originally classified as a brownfield due to a small amount of contamination from previous uses. The nonprofit group Friends of Algiers, which owns and is renovating the Guilford General Store, held the property and restored it to health before selling it to WWHT for development.

Stevens & Associates’ involvement in this project coincided with our work on the Algiers waterline project, which extended a waterline from Brattleboro to the Algiers village area. The new housing would not have been possible without the added waterline.

 

Traditional Neighborhood Development: Walkability

In part 4 of our blog series, we explore what makes a neighborhood walkable. In previous installments, we’ve covered what TND is, why we as a firm encourage it, and how density and scale contribute to “human-scaled” environments.
Walkable areas include an appropriate street grid and providing pedestrian amenities such as landscaping, benches, and appropriate lighting.

Dead-end streets, cul-de-sacs, and large parking lots all make an area feel less walkable to pedestrians. Walkers need streets to go somewhere and to connect to other streets that go somewhere. Grid-like patterns of straight streets are the easiest to navigate as a pedestrian. Long, unnecessary curves and circuitous routes make people want to use their cars.

Think about walking in downtown Brattleboro. People skip through parking lots, over landscaped areas, and across non-crosswalk-marked parts of roads to get where they are going as quickly as possible. And that’s in a fairly compact, grid-like downtown!

Pedestrian amenities also make an area feel more walkable. Benches to sit on, shade trees to sit and stand under, and well-lit pathways all make areas feel friendlier and safer for pedestrians. Such elements are somewhat missing in Brattleboro at the moment—the sidewalks aren’t quite wide enough downtown because of street widening. But walk along the Whetstone pathway (by the Food CoOp), and you will find benches and lighting, and a pleasant view of the Brook (and our resident ducks).

When you make new developments—or extensions to existing ones—feel like historic downtowns, they encourage walking instead of driving. That improves the environmental profile of the development and, some suggest, the health of residents.

For more information on creating walkable communities, visit the America Walks website, where you can download a guide: Steps to a Walkable Community.

 

 

Traditional Neighborhood Design: Setbacks and Scale

Walking in Manhattan is distinctly different from walking down a rural country lane, a suburban neighborhood, or a small town’s Main Street. Why? A lot of it has to do with setback and scale.

Setback refers to how far parts of a building are from the street or sidewalk. In urban areas, buildings are often right up against the sidewalk, whereas in rural areas they’re set way back. Conventional suburban development features big front yards, long driveways, and garages set closer to the road than houses. This set-up favors the automobile, and makes walking feel less desirable.

Scale refers to how large the buildings are. On that Manhattan street, with skyscrapers set really close to the street, you can feel like you’re walking through a tunnel. Rural areas feel spread out because the buildings are relatively small compared to the landscape, and placed far apart.

Small town Main Streets are somewhere in between—the buildings are close to the street, but usually no more than four stories tall. They feel accessible, “human scaled.”

Traditional Neighborhood Development (TND) advocates narrow front setbacks (close to the street), with garages set farther from the street than the main building. Smaller buildings are preferred over skyscrapers, generally, unless you’re in a really urban setting.

In a lot of places, the zoning regulations require large setbacks and allow larger buildings—so TND requires a variance or zoning ordinance change.

(Photo: Aiyou Zho; Vintage Township in Lubbock, TX.)

 

 

   

Traditional Neighborhood Development: It’s All About Density

Traditional Neighborhood Development (TND) uses compact, mixed use development and high residential densities to achieve walkable, vibrant neighborhoods.

When they think of “compact” and “high-density” development, most people think of skyscrapers, high-rises, and millions of people: Manhattan. But that’s not the kind of density TND uses. A more useful model is downtown Brattleboro, Northampton, or Keene. Two- to four-story buildings with residential and commercial uses mixed in a central core, surrounded by a mix of single- and multi-family homes on small lots.

Technically, the minimum residential density for a neighborhood to feel “walkable” is about 4 units per acre (single-family homes on quarter-acre lots; the Round Lake Road TND at left is a little more dense than that). When you get upwards of 30 units per acre, things start to feel more urban (think Manhattan).
Putting commercial and residential properties in close proximity (apartments above retail and office space, for example) makes a downtown vibrant and useable by its residents. Ideally, some residents live, work, and shop largely in a walkable radius.

Before cars existed, people lived and worked within a much smaller radius than they do now. TND seeks to shrink that radius to pre-automobile levels, at least in part. Doing so has obvious environmental benefits—less driving means less gas—but it also has other, less tangible benefits. Residents who walk to work and errands run into their neighbors and know their shopkeepers and local officials. This leads to an increased sense to community.

That, after all, is TND’s ultimate goal: to create community.

(This is the third in a series of posts about TND. For background, read the first and second.)