LONGSHOT TO DISTINCTION
27 October 2016 - Tim Hawk
I began working at WSA Studio in 1986, three days after I graduated from Ohio State. The firm was located, at the time, in a historic building in downtown Columbus. The building didn’t have the kind of character that most people demand out of a historic building, and so it was largely empty. The first floor retail was filled, and Bob and Tom had occupied the second floor. When you arrived in the Wandel & Schnell space, it was clear that they had used restraint in the renovation, and more important to me was the modern attitude of those items that had been added. The walls were white. The wood trim on a bank of windows facing north to Long Street had been painted white. The floor was a neutral carpet and there was a really nice white desk upon your arrival that greeted you. I enjoyed my time in that space and believe that space informs my design to this day. Later, when the firm had outgrown this space, Bob and Tom rehabilitated a building on Chestnut Street, and then in 2004, when I took over the firm, we became the lead tenant in the Berry Boltworks, a national historic landmark in Italian Village. So, WSA Studio has a tradition of renovating overlooked buildings. We find delight in the simplicity of a great space, and we capitalize on the amazing infrastructure which is so hard to build with today’s dollars.
In 2010 I was approached by Don Devere, a local developer, who stated that he had an opportunity for me. On a cold day in February, we visited the lonely, dilapidated former warehouse of the Columbus Jack Company. It was love at first sight. The building had everything I love. It was simple, straightforward, stately, humble, and regular. The brick exterior frames tremendous window openings, and the center of the building was punctuated by an elevator tower. But, boy oh boy, was this place in bad shape. The Jack had sent empty since the mid-1980’s when the Jack Company abandoned the building for a shiny new location. The windows had been boarded on the first floor, the roof was shot, and water had been flowing into the building, creating warped floor surfaces. The interior brick and wood had been painted and was chipping, so there was lead paint peppering the floors. There was no electrical or HVAC infrastructure, and what little plumbing there was had been abandoned. The stairs in the building did not meet any modern code, and many of the panes in the large steel windows were broken. It was an absolute mess. To make matters worse, Don told me that a host of development teams had looked at the property and walked away since they couldn’t make the financial numbers work. I didn’t care. I knew that we could find a way to salvage this place, and I was too smitten to walk away.
Fast forward a few months, and we had figured out a way to turn the building into a first floor studio space with six loft style apartments on levels two and three. When the development team ran the numbers, the strategy had sufficient return, in large part due to our design attitude. We had let the building take the lead. We embraced the raw nature of the building and applied the same type of restraint that Bob and Tom had applied on West Long Street in 1980. After all of these years, the firm had come to know how to approach a historic building. It takes a special approach, and a lot of creativity to handle the existing conditions within limited budgets. Most importantly, it is design restraint that is required and there are other factors which inform our approach.
First, it is imperative that the design team respects the building and its existing conditions. The rehabilitation of an historic structure is far different than the design of a new building where the sky is the limit. On an adaptive re-use project, the existing building becomes the largest and most substantial design parameter. Almost every time, the existing condition wins, and it is vital that the design team study the building and gain an intimate understanding of its every part. After this information is gained, the design team needs to prioritize the attributes which are vital to the essence of the existing building. At The Jack, we determined that the patina of the wood ceilings and brick walls had to be maintained. The floors and windows were in rough shape and needed to be replaced, and the replacement of the roof was a high priority, of course.
The standard building code cannot be used for a project like The Jack. We apply Chapter 34 of the Ohio Building Code, a special section which allows our team to prioritize strategies as we adapt the building. Trade-offs allow the design team to keep exposed structure and other features which might need to be covered up under the basic code in order to provide fire separations or protect structure. Chapter 34 allows all of the existing beauty to remain.
In order to stay within budget, the design team needs to harness modest finishes throughout with special attention given to selected areas where higher quality finishes add the necessary sparkle. At The Jack, we spent money on quality lighting, high efficiency HVAC systems, great thermal windows, and new hardwood floors in the lofts. The kitchens are nice, but not the feature, and the bathrooms harness crisp fixtures and simple layouts. The exterior brick walls, large windows which flood the space with natural light, and exposed heavy timber beam construction take the lead and the typical “suburban” features (the kitchen cabinets and countertops) do not need to fill in the design void.
The key to success is a creative approach featuring the hand that you are dealt by these awesome old buildings. Many architects are tempted to apply the latest trend and materials, and cover up the historic beauty in the process. We listen to buildings and let them tell us which direction they want to take. In the end, the result is a blend of new and old, historic and modern, modest and elegant. And the aesthetic becomes timeless.
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