Q & A with the Architects of our Best Before and After Home

Learn how to adapt their winning strategies to your own renovation or adaptive reuse.
Robert Martin

We know that not everyone’s up to tackling something like a Quonset hut, but people do turn existing buildings into new homes every day. That’s why Architecture Editor Robert Martin sat down with winning architects Michael and Jane Frederick to get their pointers and tips on adaptive reuse.

Q: To reuse or build anew: That’s the question many homeowners face these days, particularly with the rising cost of construction. How does one make the right decision?
A: Michael: “First, I think we need to define what the term ‘adaptive reuse’ means. People often get it and basic renovations confused―but they’re not the same. Adaptive reuse occurs when you turn a structure into something that’s different from its original, intended use. For instance, converting an old warehouse into condo space, or making a barn livable―that’s adaptive reuse.

In my mind, two important things you should ask yourself when considering a project like this are: 1) What intrinsic value or aesthetics does the existing structure have that can’t be rebuilt if you bulldozed everything and started from scratch, and 2) Is the cost of salvaging some or all of the existing structure worth the time, effort, and money versus undergoing all new construction? If you can reasonably answer in favor of working with what’s already there, then adaptive reuse is your answer. Remember, too, that existing structures come with all kinds of inherent limitations―you may not be able to put a window where you want it due to structural concerns, for example. Also, things like local zoning ordinances, building codes, and site constraints must all be considered.”

Q: I guess in a way, the adaptive reuse of your Quonset hut was already done for you by previous homeowners, right? In turn, you transformed it from a meager home into a part of a larger, more updated one:
A: Michael: “You’re correct. In hindsight, Jane and I followed our own advice that we often give to our clients, which is: There is value in changing what you already have to improve your lifestyle, particularly in this economic climate. Even relatively small renovations, if cleverly designed, can give a nonfunctional, unattractive home all it needs to work. After settling with the idea to salvage the Quonset hut, Jane and I were able to save money by using a more industrial palette of materials, such as concrete floors, corrugated sheet metal roofs, and concrete and metal stairs. Consequently, these savings allowed us to splurge on things like appliances, countertops, and big sliding doors.

It appears that the upcoming trend will be reworking buildings close to places where people live and work, while scaling down much of the excessive spaces we all thought were so necessary in the recent past.”

Q: The two of you were without a kitchen for quite some time while you renovated the hut. How did you make do?
A: Jane: “Because we had designed and built a new, detached garage with a guest suite above, we used the upstairs space as a makeshift living area and kitchen. Believe me, we ate a lot of microwave meals and grilled out many barbeque dinners during this time!”

Q: This brings up another question: If people are living in the space(s) they’re wanting to renovate, is it best to stay put―and attempt to survive the construction―or move elsewhere?
A: Michael: “With any new construction, even smaller ones, there’s always far more mess, noise, and distractions than you might first imagine. In saying this, if you can relocate while the work’s being done―great. If not, try to anticipate and make arrangements for all the things you’ll be without, like not having full use of a kitchen, or things like frequent power disruptions. The scale of the project, along with your level of tenaciousness, will determine whether or not you’ll want to stay put.”

Q: Lastly, what’s your advice for people who aren’t sure if renovating or adaptive reuse is right for them?
A: Michael: “Any type of design project, whether it be a new home, an addition, or reusing something that’s already built, can be difficult to grasp and see through. That’s where an architect or someone skilled in construction can greatly help by listening to your needs and developing a plan. Just like we did, even if you can’t afford to do everything all at once, having a master plan that’s flexible and well-thought-out will keep you on track. An overall vision, or concept, of what you want in the end makes decisions easier and narrows down your choices.