Adaptive reuse: Gentle people, restart your engines

Bottom line: Many important U.S. urban centers have little build-able, open space. What many of them do offer, though, is a nice supply of underperforming buildings, which could be a golden opportunity for hotel owners and developers looking to bring their brand to (or expand it in) those sought-after cities.

Adaptive reuse — the art and design science of reinventing buildings — occupies a small but powerful niche within the larger world of hotel development. It’s powerful because it gives hoteliers a way into otherwise impenetrable urban centers.

It also gives them a road less traveled. Let’s face it, turning a former office building (or warehouse or theater) from the 1930s into a hotel demands not only creativity, but also an open mind. It demands hoteliers “restart” their engines. By that, I mean redefining their expectations and their set of “givens” in a way that ground-up construction and/or renovation of existing hotel stock does not require. And did I mention the need for (really) over-the-top design thinking?

For instance, in an adaptive reuse project, a brand’s standard roster of room types may need to be tweaked and expanded to respond to the existing building’s physical constraints, which include structural columns, beams, elevator cores, existing stairs, loading docks, exterior windows and floor-to-floor heights. Traditional hotel space planning may need to be tossed, as well. Spaces may need to be rethought/reconfigured to fit the program elements into the existing architectural shell while simultaneously providing superb guest experiences and operational efficiency. Same with the usual formula for performance — it may need to be revised to account for these planning and construction adjustments.

The following are some key things hoteliers need to keep in mind when considering or embarking on adaptive reuse development.

Is it right for both of you?

First and foremost, you’ve got to figure out the most appropriate use for the building in question, a new life that will best take advantage of its bones and character. Not all fatigued (or otherwise ill-at-ease) office buildings make viable hotels. Consider what’s best for the building first — then whether you belong in its future.

Historical significance is nice, but not required. 

We at Gensler recently transformed two magnificent office buildings from the early 20th Century in historical districts of Philadelphia into boutique hotels for Kimpton Hotels & Restaurants, a brand known for its command of adaptive reuse. Both buildings came with great history, great bones and great character (including some fantastic masonry and terracotta details we couldn’t do now) that we used to our advantage. But that type of grandeur is not a prerequisite to adaptive reuse. Also successful was a project we completed in Phoenix last year for Westin Hotels & Resorts in which we converted the lower 10 floors of a new office tower into a 330,000-sq-ft (30,658-sq-m), 242-guestroom luxury hotel targeting leisure and business travelers. (The conversion made sense, given the increased demand for hotel rooms and a decrease in demand for office space, which was why the office tower did not lease up, a casualty of the recession.) There was no history here, just a newly designed building and solid structure with a dynamite location one block from the convention center in the heart of Phoenix, which was understocked with hotel rooms and, notably, luxury ones.

Change management.

Adaptive reuse means you, too, have to adapt. The building’s not doing all of the changing. Columns, beams and elevator cores don’t move nicely. Your vision can. You need to be creative in your space planning and addition of room types to accommodate the restrictions dictated by the building. Challenges can turn into opportunities for creating something special.  

At the Westin in Phoenix, which started its life as an office tower, the building’s floor plates are (naturally) bigger/deeper, as needed to accommodate typical office lease depths. With careful space planning, Westin was able to take full advantage of that by creating a special room type aimed at the business traveler — a guestroom with meeting space. The building’s beefy center core (again, in line for an office building but oversize for a hotel) was populated with storage and housekeeping rooms. And although there was no column-free space anywhere in the building, we were able to create a voluminous ballroom given the building’s high floor-to-ceiling space. At Hotel Palomar Philadelphia (one of the Kimpton properties we did and a former office building designed in the 1920s), we landed the ballroom in a spectacular penthouse space.

Brand management.

Although the existing building drives much of an adaptive reuse development, your brand should do the critical steering. Ultimately, the project should be a beautiful melding of the two. At the two Kimpton properties Gensler did in Philadelphia, we added branded canopies to signify the entrance and did it in a way that did not disturb the historical fabric of the existing buildings. We likewise found a way to insert restaurants into the ground floor and give them some presence on the street. In the end, though, the interior design is what weaves the brand into the depths of the building. (Gensler did the interior design for the Westin in Phoenix and was the architect for the two Kimpton properties.) It’s done with color, materials, furniture and fixtures that marry building and brand.