The new old
Modern features have to be added to older buildings to entice companies to move in
Sacramento Business Journal - July 13, 2007
by Robert Celaschi, Correspondent
They don't build offices like they used to. For owners of old buildings, that can be a big-time problem -- they often lack the creature comforts tenants have come to expect.
Unless the owners have renovated extensively, the heating and air conditioning systems might be clanky and cranky.
Forget high-speed cable. The offices might not even have decent insulation.
As for interior space, buildings from a bygone age tend to feature rabbit warrens of cramped rooms instead of the open plan today's workers are used to.
For the prospective tenant, the solution is relatively simple: Go look for another space that has been brought up to date. But for the building owner, the challenge is how to make that old structure comfy in a way that will pencil out.
There's no magic formula.
"They're all different," said developer Larry Kelley, president of McClellan Air Park LLC. He's been turning a variety of former Air Force buildings into leasable space. "The challenge we face is you've got to get all the code compliance issues taken care of."
That almost always means making changes to meet the Americans with Disabilities Act and often getting rid of lead-based paint and asbestos.
None of the work is cheap, and the older the building, the more complex it gets. But once a building is up to code, it becomes more a matter of cosmetics, Kelley said.
One building, two approaches
One recent project getting a lot of attention is the renovation of the Elks Building at 921 11th St. in downtown Sacramento.
Owner Steve Ayers has received praise for ripping out wallboard and T-bar acoustic ceilings to expose the 1926 building's ornate ceilings and walls that have been hidden for 30-plus years.
But architect Dean Unger sticks up for the remodel in the 1970s.
"I designed all the renovation work with Bill Cook," Unger said. "If it wasn't for us, they would have had to tear the building down."
Unger said the original interior had been gorgeous, but in the 1970s, downtown Sacramento didn't provide enough tenants willing to cover the cost of an ornate -- and high-priced -- restoration.
"We finally threw up our hands and said if we are going to turn this thing around, we have to hang some ceilings," Unger said.
The building was filled with small rooms designed to house retired gentlemen on the fourth floor and above. Unger said he opened it up as much as he could, turning the floors into plain vanilla offices in order to make the building economically feasible. He was required to add a staircase but didn't want to diminish the leasable space, so he put a steel stair tower outside the north wall.
"As it was, we poured a lot of money into it and sold it, and didn't make anything," he said.
Today, there's a market for the kind of beaux-arts architectural restoration that Ayers is completing, with 14,000 square feet of retail and 70,000 square feet of offices. Even so, Ayers has limits.
"Being in the business of development, we do have to make a margin. There is a balance we have to strike," he said. "While we would like to bring it back to its full grandeur, we realize some things are not practical."
For some particular areas within the building, Ayers has gone beyond the point where he expects to recover the cost of restoration. But looking at the building as an entire package, he said it's worth the price.
"I've been told it couldn't be done, but I'm here to tell you it can be done," he said.
While the challenges will vary from building to building, the "must haves" are fairly consistent.
At the top of the list is comfort, Unger said.
That typically means ripping out the old heating and air conditioning systems.
Second is a quiet environment. Extra insulation in the walls can help, as can a thick carpet. But there are other tools, Unger said, such as white-noise generators.
Also, where possible, renovators should knock down walls. The modern office uses cubicles and workstations.
And they should pay special attention to the front entrance.
"Any Realtor will tell you that the first impression you get is in the lobby," Unger said. "Once you get past the lobby, you can do about anything."
It sounds simple, until the owner starts to factor in the cost. If the building is old enough, historic preservation also becomes an issue.
What to do, for instance, when high, ornate ceilings don't provide room for new air conditioning ductwork? That's when the owner, architect and contractors have to make some tough decisions.
"You want to provide the tenant with a finished product, but you don't need to go overboard," said Joe Kerekgyarto, vice president of estimating for John F. Otto Inc. in Sacramento. "There are a lot of things you can come up with that could lighten the load on their pocketbook."
In some cases, the answer is to cover up the worn, historic elements until money is available to restore the historic fabric.
Instead of refinishing hardwood floor, the owner could lay down new carpet, Kerekgyarto said. Damaged plaster walls can be patched or covered with gypsum wallboard.
At the Elks building this year, the Otto crew had to install a false ceiling in a conference room where a huge duct had been punched through the original ceiling. Wooden baseboards might enhance the look of an older office, but vinyl might do the trick for now.
"Other things would be like doors," Kerekgyarto said. "You can find a nice quality door that has some historic flair to it but is made with modern materials and blends in well with historic doors, including the hardware."
Turning an older building into a comfortable office can be easier in some ways if the building wasn't originally an office.
John F. Otto's own headquarters had been a warehouse. When it's obvious that the building has been converted to a new use, there's less need to hide the changes, Kerekgyarto said. Thus, the ductwork is exposed.
Another building the company has worked on is now occupied by Pyramid Alehouse, Brewery and Restaurant at 11th and K streets in Sacramento. Previous incarnations include the Touch of Class restaurant and the Ransohoff's dress store.
Built in two phases -- one concrete frame and one wood frame -- the building had to be seismically and structurally upgraded. The steel X braces have since become incorporated as an architectural element at Pyramid.
On Alhambra Boulevard in Sacramento, Medical Vision Technology Ophthalmology Group Inc. occupies what had once been the Glenn Dairy and later Dolan's Lumber. About 40 percent of the 21,000-square-foot building is the historic dairy, with the rest comprising new construction over an old garage, said Dr. Robert Peabody Sr., co-owner of the ophthalmology group.
"They didn't use a lot of steel in those days," he said.
Previous owners had to add a lot of reinforcing bar to the extra-thick concrete walls and floors in order to bring the building up to code. That makes for an especially quiet building, but it also means a lot of extra drilling when his company wants to do any remodeling. It can take a couple of days to cut a hole in the wall, Peabody said.
The building already had a standard office interior when he bought it about 15 years ago, Peabody said, but his group has had to put in extra plumbing and drains for its lab.
A shell of its former self
There are little ways to add a lot of charm to an old building. Fresh paint is the easiest, especially with complimentary trim colors, Kelley said. And good lighting makes any space look better.
There's also no point in trying to guess what finishing touches a tenant will want.
"If we have a building that shows well, you leave it at that," Kelley said. "Tenants sometimes have a difficult time if you haven't done something to make it presentable, but a lot of times a design is tenant-driven. If you get too far in front of yourself, you end up going backward."
But the best approach of all, Unger said, is to gut the building as long as there's nothing historic to preserve. Architectural charm might bring tenants in the front door, but the inside of an office building must be all business.