Resurrecting Buildings for Changing Communities

by Balfour Beatty

Cities across the country are experiencing three uniquely intersecting phenomena: aging historical landmark buildings, increased need for multifamily housing and decreased need for dedicated office spaces. At the convergence of all three, Balfour Beatty is leading the construction industry as a premier builder of adaptive reuse projects that accomplish our twofold goal: preparing our communities for new growth and preserving their historical character.

Our teams are trusted to deliver adaptive reuse projects on accelerated schedules and reliable budgets, all accomplished with coalitions of trusted trade partners and expert handling of complex municipal, state and federal regulations. Each project, whether a simple repositioning or a complete repurposing, creates opportunity for economic growth fit for a community’s changing needs.

Discovery in Demolition

Cities across the U.S. are filled with examples of period architecture, often reflecting that city’s unique history. As these buildings age, adaptive reuse offers a way to reinvigorate their economic value to the community while still preserving their historical character. This process can present challenges specific to each reuse project, but Balfour Beatty’s expert teams provide critical early analysis, enabled by technology at every turn, to create a path to success.

Adaptive reuse projects often occur in right in our cities’ historic downtown areas, as with Dallas High School. Originally built in 1907, the school remained open under multiple names until it closed in 1995 and was added to the National Register of Historic Places the following year. In 2017, Balfour Beatty Operations Director Chad Brewer and his team gave Dallas High School a complete interior, exterior and structural renovation, preparing it for decades of new life as an office building while remaining an integral part of Dallas history.

Addressing structural concerns for a 100-year-old building is a monumental task. In many cases, existing building schematics and blueprints are inaccurate, obsolete or simply don’t exist. Whatever the current conditions, our teams excel at performing advanced diagnostics and strategic demolition work that enables early, reliable budgeting and early procurement of materials.

“All we had for Dallas High School was an old set of plans that showed the existing foundation,” Chad recalls. “We already knew we would need to reinforce the foundation with rebar, but after initial excavation, it looked like the original builders created parts of the foundation with extra scrap bricks and mortar.”

That brick-and-mortar solution may have worked in 1907 and may have survived the following century out of sheer luck, but it wouldn’t suffice for modern safety standards. Thanks to their early excavation and identification of the problem, the project team was able to identify all affected areas of the foundation and replace them with reinforced, cast-in-place concrete foundations.

Hotel Row and the Historic Krog District, both in Atlanta, Georgia, also stand as shining examples of the power of adaptive reuse. Hotel Row Row originally comprised three upscale hotels – The Gordon, The Scoville and The Sylvan – that anchored downtown Atlanta’s business district and served a nearby passenger rail terminal. The buildings have served many purposes over their century-long life but had sat vacant for decades until Balfour Beatty’s renovation, completed in 2022 for client NEWPORT RE.

By leveraging cutting-edge tools like drone imaging and laser scanning, our project team was able to discover, accurately catalogue and troubleshoot several issues early in the project lifecycle, including rooftop water damage, previously unseen mechanical, electrical and plumbing (MEP) system issues and even fire damage sustained nearly 100 years ago.

“Our job on adaptive reuse projects, especially historic renovations, is to limit our clients’ exposure and eliminate as many unexpected costs as early as possible,” says Luis de la Cruz, project manager on Hotel Row. “By using the best tools and technologies and teams that understand this unique work, we present clients with reliable budgets, reliable schedules and enable early trade partner and materials procurement in a strained supply chain.”

At every step of tech-enabled project analysis, our teams use careful demolition and resection to assess a building’s current conditions when as-built drawings are inaccurate or unavailable. Like the Dallas High School’s foundation or Hotel Row’s rooftop water damage, sometimes problems require digging a little deeper.

On the Kimpton Harper Hotel, another adaptive reuse project in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex, Balfour Beatty provided the client with critical early insights into the building’s unknown structural integrity by taking core samples of floor and ceiling joists. The building was once the tallest in Texas upon its completion in 1921, but the team soon discovered that its original joists wouldn’t hold up to its new purpose as a 226-room boutique hotel and devised a reinforcement plan accordingly.

“When dealing with 100-year-old buildings, select demolition can be a crucial tool for early success,” Chad says. “We engage key trade partners like structural and MEP engineers and, together, assess the materials’ age, the standards they were originally built with and what reinforcement they need. Adaptive reuse is often as much of a history lesson as it is construction.”

After teams expose unstable structural and MEP junctures, laser scanning and 360-degree jobsite capture with OpenSpace provide ongoing assessment and documentation support. By leveraging these tools, our teams ensure not just that a building’s original conditions are well documented, but that repairs and renovations are meticulously recorded for any future needs.

The Style Beyond the Structure

While structural integrity is, quite literally, an important foundational consideration for our adaptive reuse project teams, much of what sets these buildings apart are their unique interior elements and exterior facade. Our teams are adept at returning storied buildings to their former splendor, engaging highly specialized trade partners and managing complex legal regulations to ensure fidelity to each building’s historical character.

Buildings slated for adaptive reuse can fall under any combination of federal, state and municipal historical records – official legal designations that stipulate what historical elements of the building must be maintained. In some cases, the National Parks Service or similar state-level entities conduct periodic and final site walks to review the preservation process.

“The challenge, and where our teams always excel, is bringing every element up to code while still maintaining as much of the original aesthetics as possible,” Chad says. “We work closely with our trade partners, client and design teams at every step to achieve both missions.”

On Dallas High School, for example, the building’s original wood-framed windows were included on the historical registry’s list of essential features. The project team partnered with expert craftworkers who carefully removed the original glass panes and reassembled the wood frames with new energy-efficient windows, accomplishing both the historical aesthetic and modern efficiency and thermoregulation. The team employed similar methods when restoring exterior brick, specifically green-colored interior tile and even restoring plaster column capitals shaped like open books, a callback to the building’s former life.

“When trying to preserve period aesthetics, everything matters: size, color and material,” Chad says. “Our teams put in extensive work to find out whether a historic building’s original design elements still exist and if we can still procure them. If not, we provide solutions with modern materials and methods that cleave close to the original intent.”

Restoring Hotel Row’s pre-war aesthetics was significantly complicated by layers of slipshod repairs by previous tenants and extensive damage from a 1930s fire that had charred the Sylvan’s distinctive hardwood columns and warped its pressed tin ceiling tiles. Through early analysis, the project team determined the columns were still structurally sound and only superficially damaged. Careful sanding and refinishing provided a restoration solution that precluded costly replacement columns.

“In a way, Hotel Row’s history is literally charred into its wooden columns,” Luis says. “It’s just another way we preserved its unique past and transformed the space into something new and useful for Atlanta’s future.”

Hotel Row also displays the power of adding completely new features to a historic building, bringing modern functionality to its purpose as a mixed-use retail and office development. Fulfilling one of the client’s core goals, the project team constructed an enclosed lightwell on all floors between the Sylvan East and Sylvan West structures, increasing walkability between the two. The brick and glass enclosure is a distinctly modernized design element while still tying seamlessly into the Hotel Row complex.

Selecting the right trade partners and finding the right materials is so integral to adaptive reuse success that our teams often look outside the community out of necessity. Not every manufacturer can recreate the brick, tile, bronze fixtures or one-of-a-kind plaster molds used at the turn of the twentieth century, so Balfour Beatty has developed an extensive network of trusted trade partners while still maximizing partnership opportunities with local and minority or women-owned business enterprises (MWBE).

Prepared for New Growth

Changing development needs are simply a part of urban growth. In cities across the U.S., areas once used for manufacturing and warehousing have been repurposed for retail, multifamily housing and more. In recent years, the balance of corporate office space to housing availability remains in flux. Whatever the situation, Balfour Beatty’s adaptive reuse teams provide the project experience and tech-enabled solutions to completely transform a building’s purpose.

And for historic buildings in particular, more and more clients are finding that a storied past and distinctive aesthetic isn’t a reason to demolish and start over. Instead, Balfour Beatty preserves them, repurposes them and builds them into a new future.