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Adaptive Reuse Growing In Importance As More Buildings Need To Change For The Coronavirus Era

The coronavirus pandemic is changing commercial real estate in unpredictable ways. Some landlords will need to find new uses for buildings where demand is drying up as more tenants decide to keep workforces at home, and most buildings will need retrofits to improve protections for tenants that do return.

Legal cannabis cultivation and sales are also spreading to many new jurisdictions, boosting demand for developers and architects that can repurpose old industrial structures and retail outlets for this new industry.

Tenants were already flocking to revamped historic structures such as Chicago's Main Post Office, but to take advantage of the growing demand for such projects, developers need to rethink how they have approached building renovations, especially the installation of new HVAC systems, a key consideration in the coronavirus era.

The renovated Main Post Office at 433 West Van Buren

Viruses are much smaller than bacteria, so something more is needed than traditional HVAC systems, which can filter out bacteria, Sterling Bay Director of Life Sciences Catherine Vorwald said during Bisnow’s Chicago Deep Dish: Repositioning & Renovation webinar July 16.

Vorwald, who was scientifically trained at the National Institutes of Health before joining the commercial real estate industry, said Sterling Bay is looking into using HVAC systems that chemically treat air with hydrogen peroxide, which would kill viruses before they circulate within buildings.

“Spoken like a true scientist,” said moderator Ira Singer, principal at Northbrook, Illinois-based Mosaic Construction, which specializes in multifamily and has also constructed dozens of cannabis shops nationwide.

Novel Coworking CEO Bill Bennett said attention to such details and a willingness to try new approaches will be important qualities for anyone renovating a structure.

“There really is no one solution for air quality,” he said.

Novel Coworking has stayed open as an essential business throughout the pandemic, which taught it valuable lessons about redesigning buildings so tenants will feel safe, including making HVAC upgrades, instituting plans for more spacing between workers, restricting elevator usage, adding handwashing stations and changing the flow of people around an office to reduce face-to-face interactions.

“It’s the 1,000 things you’re going to do, it’s not one silver bullet,” Bennett said.

Clockwise from top left: Sterling Bay Director of Life Sciences Catherine Vorwald, Mosaic Construction principal Ira Singer, Btl Architects principal Delph Gustitus and Novel Coworking CEO Bill Bennett.

Singer added that new renovations, whatever the type of building, are now about more than simple alterations to the built environment. It’s also about keeping an eye on how users’ behavior within structures needs to change.

That’s a challenge, Bennett said, but having to understand clients’ operations and not just how much and what type of space they need also provides builders with opportunities to create closer relationships.

“Everybody I know hates their landlord, but people love their business partners, and they love having a partner who looks at their business and finds ways to help their business succeed.”

“What you’re really describing is a design-build philosophy where we’re understanding the vision that the client has for the building, bringing good design, along with construction, and constructability thinking, to understand budgeting,” Singer said.

That strategy is key to Mosaic’s cannabis work, he added.

“We are taking large-scale industrial warehouse buildings and essentially repurposing them and building a shell of a building inside an existing building for our clients to grow and harvest cannabis. It’s unbelievable to take a blight of a 70K to 80K SF building that is sitting there doing nothing, repurpose it and bring it to life.”