In Design - February 2022
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inDESIGN / ADAPTIVE REUSE

Waste Not, Want Not
Adaptive Reuse Brings New Life & Community to Unused Structures

By Emily Tipping


We all know the adage, "Reduce, reuse and recycle." And when it comes to architecture and designing recreation facilities, these strategies have long been in play. Reduce waste. Reuse materials. Recycle what you can.

In architecture, adaptive reuse means taking an existing structure and repurposing it, bringing new life to buildings that might otherwise stand empty. From former churches and theaters to former retail and industrial sites, many cities and towns are home to these kinds of opportunities—if we can just see them that way.

Adaptive reuse doesn't just provide an environmental benefit though. As construction costs soar and supply-chain issues multiply, adaptive reuse can help facilities looking to build find ways to do so more efficiently.

"With recent construction industry news focusing on inflation and supply chain as highly disruptive forces, adaptive reuse projects could be a way for facility owners/managers to partially manage project timing and cost risks," said Kevin O'Donnell, vice president and marketing manager for Zimmerman Architectural Studios Inc. in Milwaukee, Wis. He added that "… disruption to the supply chain has caused shortages and long lead times in most all major building structure materials, including steel, concrete and wood. Repurposing existing buildings can alleviate some of those risks by reusing structure, and envelope (roof and walls) where possible."

"You're salvaging a good part of your exterior shell, structural steel and concrete," explained Brian Hatzung, AIA, LEED-AP, vice president and Recreational Facilities studio director for Zimmerman. "Today, those things—and particularly structural steel—are inflated in price and hard to get in time for whatever your construction timetable is. So reusing an existing building allows you to mitigate some of those price increases and schedule challenges that the market has right now."

In addition, Hatzung touted the ability of adaptive reuse projects to reinvigorate the communities immediately surrounding those currently-empty buildings. "Reusing an existing structure, particularly in an urban area that is suffering from blight, is bringing a new use—a new vitality—to that part of the community. It can totally transform a downtown. What was once an eyesore is now an extraordinary, vibrant part of the community."

The discussion is far more than academic for Hatzung. He's put it into practice for two Wisconsin YMCAs, transforming a former department store and an industrial building into vibrant new facilities.

YMCAs are perfect candidates for such reuse projects, which dovetail nicely with the organization's mission. "Some of the things that are front and center are sustainability and being good stewards, so they're synergistic with the Y mission," O'Donnell said.

The John E. Alexander South Wood County YMCA

The 78,000-square-foot John E. Alexander South Wood County YMCA in Wisconsin Rapids transformed a dark retail site into a fully outfitted YMCA—it even features a swimming pool.

Dark retail sites—from once-thriving-but-now-defunct shopping centers to out-of-business big-box stores—offer ample opportunities for repurposing into wellness and recreational spaces.

"I would think there's a lot of dark retail out there in suburbs and city centers," Hatzung said. "Those businesses aren't surviving, but a lot of that infrastructure still has good bones, but needs a fresh look at how it can be repurposed."

Still, care must be taken.

"It depends on what's going into the space," Hatzung said. "When it comes to building with existing column grids designed for one purpose, if you're going to be putting a different use in there column spacing is a big thing to look at. For example, when putting a pool or a gymnasium into an existing retail space, you'll have to deal with column locations. So, you have to find the right uses to go into those dark retail spaces and then add on spaces to accommodate the bigger components."

That's jut what he did for the South Wood County YMCA. "The spaces we retained from the existing mall building were infilled with components that could accommodate a tighter column grid—so, classrooms, childcare and a game room were integrated into existing mall space and saved a considerable amount of concrete and steel," Hatzung said. "Those kinds of uses where there's some smaller spaces work out well in a dark retail location."

The gymnasium and swimming pool spaces were added to the existing structure. "Where we added the gym and pool and locker rooms, those spaces need clear spans. There's a lot going on under the floor with a swimming pool. So it didn't make sense to cut up existing floor slabs. Finding that right balance of what you save and what needs to get scrubbed from the project entirely is important."

In addition to existing pillars, non-existent windows are often a challenge in dark retail spaces. "The exterior walls tend to be pretty solid," Hatzung said. "There's not a lot of windows in a department store. So if you're putting in a use that requires windows, you have to consider how and where you cut those."

Open since June 2020, the South Wood County YMCA features a complete range of amenities, providing the Y's storied programming to the community, from fitness and wellness to aquatics, childcare and more.

"I would venture a guess that most residents of Wisconsin Rapids wouldn't remember that that's where they used to go shopping for cardigans and sweaters," Hatzung said.