Recently, we’ve seen a huge increase in adaptive reuse projects in urban cores across the country as more companies look to score downtown real estate in already densely populated areas. However, designing an office space that is contemporary and functional, while remaining respectful of the character and integrity of the classic building it inhabits can create an enormous challenge.

Historic rehabilitation projects often rely on the federal historic tax credit program, and those projects must meet the strict standards administered by the National Park Service. The challenge lies in effective storytelling: preserving the stories from the building’s past, while simultaneously creating a fresh, inspiring space where future stories can unfold. Based on Kraemer Design Group’s own experience in rehabilitating buildings in Detroit, here are some tips and considerations for writing the next chapter in a historic building’s story:

1. Don’t try to fit a square peg in a round hole

Sometimes historic buildings just don’t easily lend themselves to a practical office configuration. In these cases it is important not to force it. The more you have to change the actual space or structure, the harder it will be to get approved for historic tax credits. The National Park Service always puts an emphasis on maintaining the historic aesthetic of any space where the public would have a memory of the building, such as lobbies, public assembly areas, dining rooms, elevators or corridors. Private offices or back-of-house areas offer more freedom to enact large-scale changes and integrate the modern design preferences of today.

2. Look to the building’s history for inspiration

The first step in the design process is always to consider the original purpose of the building or the occupation of the company that once inhabited it. KDG is working on a historic building that used to be a recording studio in Detroit’s Capitol Park, a neighborhood that gave rise to techno music in the mid-90’s. We used that history to inspire the design of the interiors of the building. Similarly, another recent project in downtown Detroit restored some original 1960’s interior spaces, and we played off that theme with a few “Mad Men” references throughout the building.

3. Reuse original materials

While it is always recommended that original materials be preserved and restored in place, there are opportunities when historic construction materials are removed from a building.

In those cases, we always look to salvage and reuse those materials in creative ways—both in an effort to conserve available resources, but also to take advantage of the great texture and patina only historic materials can offer. Salvaged materials can come from anywhere in the building, but are often taken from new openings through existing masonry walls or wood framed floor assemblies. In retrofitting two floors of a historic office building in Detroit for a new, high-energy tech start up, we cut a large hole in the floor to encourage collaboration between the 5th and 6th floor tenants. We then used wood salvaged from that floor to construct railings and other decorative elements throughout the space. These details have now become part of the historic narrative shared with everyone visiting the building—showcasing the story of both the building and tenant space in a new and meaningful way.

Brian Rebain

Brian is an Architect and Studio Director at Kraemer Design Group, a Detroit-based high-end architecture, interior design and creative firm serving the commercial, multi-family, residential, hospitality and retail industries. His passion for historic preservation is a natural fit as he works to revitalize his hometown of Detroit.

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