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.”
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; and scaling size restrictions that might call for micro-designing down to the square inch or up to multiple lots and acres.
At my firm, we try to find solutions to super-complex real estate projects that typically require creative thinking, ample time and unique skillsets. These projects can sometimes be hard nuts to crack, requiring troublesome approvals and an extreme level of problem solving when dealing with existing conditions. However, the rewards to owners and clients are extremely worthwhile.
Our portfolio of complex projects ranges from commercial buildings and historic preservation projects in Manhattan, to townhouses in Brooklyn, 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 firm 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.
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 requires 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 mesh 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.
Climate comfort, energy savings and life safety systems are expected in a built environment today, but standards from previous eras were far lower. This difference means many projects start with existing structures where new engineering is not possible. When new systems must be married to existing systems, complexity results and we must understand the assumptions and principles of earlier generations to design and specify the new systems.
Because of the Palisades, the New Jersey side of the Hudson River is more than the equivalent of eight building stories higher than the New York side. This heightened elevation creates windy micro-climates that affect every multifamily residential building along the river – yet it is a feature that was not addressed in most older buildings. As a result, wind and wind-driven rain have been paramount design concerns in all of our multifamily renovation projects along the Gold Coast.
At Apogee, a 30-story co-op perched atop a hill in Cliffside Park, entryway space was limited. We recommended a state-of-the-art, German-engineered turnstile door that accommodates a family of five and luggage carts in both directions simultaneously. At 1970s-era Mediterranean South in Fort Lee, we opted to use an enclosed Z-corridor scheme – essentially off-set entrances separated by a climate-controlled roof and an area at the front door that allows for three simultaneous drop-offs and pick-ups.
It is critical that design and technical solutions be proposed at the beginning of the project planning process. For instance, when first-floor amenity spaces such as fitness centers or community rooms are installed under quiet residential spaces, these upgrades can unintentionally diminish real estate values of existing units.
During the master plan process, while programming new gathering spaces at both Mediterranean South and Apogee, we resolved potential noise issues by locating second-floor residential units on concrete slabs that start approximately 12 feet above the existing grades.
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.
The ability to navigate 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 is Founder and Owner of Steven Kratchman Architect, PC. The Manhattan-based firm specializes in adding value and breathing new life into underused and overlooked properties.