Architect Griz Dwight, AIA, was doing an adaptive reuse project in the Washington, D.C., area when he came upon a brick wall that had been covered over with a thick layer of plaster. Naturally, he decided to expose the rich finish of the brick. “We were scraping [the plaster], but in some areas it wasn't coming off,” the principal of Washington, D.C.-based GrizForm Design Architects recalls. Rather than bemoan the fact, “we didn't worry about it. In those areas where the plaster didn't lift off easily, we simply decided to let the rough edges show.”

The practice of converting old factories, industrial plants, and commercial spaces into residences is a noble pursuit that benefits communities (by preserving or reviving an area's history, for example) and the environment (by reducing construction waste). But reusing old buildings also gives savvy architects a chance to explore the full potential of old materials and surfaces. Improvisation is common in such situations, they say, because you never know what material finds an existing structure might yield.

For Eric S. Robinson, AIA, a principal of San Francisco-based Melander Architects, there's “real value in historic buildings if they use quality construction and quality materials.” Those materials, he adds, “have a texture, presence, and history that you can't get back once you destroy them.” Indeed, any architect worth his salt will carefully examine an old building for reuse possibilities before beginning the design process. Robinson likens the step to sizing up a site in new-construction projects.

Rick Ghillino, a principal of Adams Mohler Ghillino Architects in Seattle, agrees. “One of the first things we do is assess the bones and see what's unique to the time the building was done,” he says. “We like to look at what [elements] can't be duplicated today.”

second chances

Adaptive reuse isn't only about preserving what can't be duplicated, however. Sometimes, it's about giving common materials new life in the aesthetics of a building. The usual suspects include brick, iron, and concrete, but there can be others.

For the Rainier Oven Building, an adaptive reuse of an industrial warehouse in Seattle, Ghillino saved and repurposed a variety of materials that enhanced the project's aura, including light steel roof trusses, brick walls, a metal stairwell, and sloping monitor skylights. “The monitors were the key element that developed the design,” Ghillino explains. “They were linear and long and set up the divisions in the studio.” Ghillino also saved the painted signs on the existing brick while rehabbing its surface. “The trick was cleaning the brick” without damaging it, he says, adding that a masonry consultant performed the delicate work by hand.

Dwight has had similar experiences when working with old brick—a common material in Washington's traditional buildings, he says. Often, he'll find the material covered in paint or mortar or in various states of disrepair. “For painted brick, we sandblast, but you have to be careful not to take off mortar,” he warns. Dwight also reuses old floorboards as much as possible and has done some polished concrete floors. He has even reused such idiosyncratic elements as fishing buoys and billboards. “If there's existing history, we use it,” he says.

Like Ghillino and Dwight's firms, Winchester, Va.-based Reader & Swartz Architects has done its fair share of adaptive reuse and renovation projects. Many have involved “mining archaeology and putting things on display,” says co-principal Charles Swartz, AIA, LEED AP. “Sometimes you have a significant artifact that's cool. Other times it's just a design aesthetic you want to push.”

Case in point: Reader & Swartz's conversion of an 1890s commercial building into new office space for the firm. In addition to retaining many of the structure's old beams, brick walls, and metal, the architects researched county records and found old pictures of the building, which, in its former life, had housed a meat market, among other enterprises. “We used high-resolution scans and blew up the pictures,” Swartz explains. “We then printed the [black-and-white] pictures on fabric mesh to build window scrims for semiprivacy and to block out sunlight.” Those archival images now not only fit the aesthetics of the building, they're also on display for passersby to appreciate.

history lesson

Identifying the useful elements in an old building is one thing; deciding what to do with them is another matter entirely. “How you treat those elements is important,” Robinson acknowledges. “Sometimes you need to figure out those things early, because they may need an extra amount of care.”

He ought to know: his firm has gone this route on more than one occasion. While working on a 150-year-old townhouse in New York City's Greenwich Village, for example, Melander Architects team members discovered an old parquet floor that easily could have been ripped out in favor of a newer surface. Instead, they carefully protected and saved the floor, patching spots where walls had been moved and covering the entire surface with a sealer. In another house, they preserved an old staircase handrail but replaced its damaged wood pickets with rounded steel versions.

Of course, the materials uncovered in some adaptive reuse projects are of little architectural significance or simply aren't worth saving. When that happens, architects craving products with patina can find a treasure trove of riches at salvage yards such as Second Chance in Baltimore or Louisville, Ky.-based Architectural Salvage. Outlets such as Rejuvenation in Portland, Ore., The Brass Knob in Washington, D.C., and New York City-based Urban Archaeology also offer antique hardware, authentic and reproduction lighting, and fireplace elements, among other architectural artifacts.

But be forewarned: Although it may seem counterintuitive, saving old elements in a building can be a budget-buster, Ghillino says. Handling, treating, and cleaning aging surfaces is time-consuming and often requires special, sometimes costly, care. Elements that will be exposed cost even more to preserve, he says, because they'll be seen, and thus, must be installed perfectly. “Otherwise, you'd just hide them behind drywall,” he explains.

Regardless, Ghillino believes saving a brick wall with graffiti or repairing ornate metalwork or an old fireplace surround is worth the effort—and the money. “In a beautiful old building, I think old materials are important,” he says. “It's a shame to hide the old stuff, and it's a loss to tear it out.”