Case Studies

Commonwealth Architects

Breathing new life into buildings – balancing sustainability and historic reuse

What’s old is new in the eyes of the restoration professionals at Commonwealth Architects. The Richmond, Virginia, based full-service architectural firm specializes in the rehabilitation and adaptive reuse of existing buildings and contextual infill design, primarily of historic significance. With 40 employees, spanning a range of expertise including historic, interior and landscape architecture, planning and visualization, Commonwealth is breathing new life into old, often vacant facilities.

“More often than not, we’re taking a building that’s been vacant for years and bringing it back to life – it’s really rewarding to see the next chapter unfold in the life of a building,” says Robert C. Burns, AIA, LEEP AP, director of historic architecture and a principal at Commonwealth.

Founded in 2000 by Bob Mills and Dominic Venuto, the firm focuses on commercial, multifamily, higher education, corporate and government projects. “We have a keen eye for historical tax credits and the adaptive reuse of buildings,” says Burns.

“We got really into green rehabilitations in early 2005,” adds Burns. “At the time, Commonwealth put forth an initiative to ensure our senior staff received LEED accreditation and training. We’ve been working sustainable principles into our historic projects wherever we can ever since – that’s really our forte as a firm and passion in the architectural realm. We also do new construction projects and a fairly wide range of project types, but we do stay true to the adaptive-reuse model.”

Striking a balance

When it comes to connecting sustainable design and rehabilitation projects, Burns is Commonwealth’s go-to for integrating LEED certification with historic investment tax-credit projects. He began his career in Jacksonville, Florida, where he first started working with historic restoration projects. “One of the first big projects that I was in charge of was the City Hall in Jacksonville,” recounts Burns. “This building was built in 1912 as a department store covering a full city block and was designed by a disciple of Frank Lloyd Wright.”

After years in the industry, Burns has learned it’s a delicate balance weaving sustainable strategies into historic facilities restoration and reuse. “Striking the appropriate balance between historic and sustainable architecture is very important,” he explains. “If it is properly considered, the solution will be a truly holistic result.”

Such is the case with Commonwealth’s role at the Ninth Street Office Building situated on Capitol Square in Richmond. “This building was originally constructed in 1904 as a hotel and the state purchased it to use as an office building and now it’s being renovated into more Class-A office space,” details Burns. “Being a publicly funded project, the state requires a significant amount of sustainable components in the development. We’ve had regular meetings with the state historic preservation officer and reviewers to discuss the specifics and major historic features of the facility.”

Attention to an eco-friendly envelope and interior details

Construction of the minimum LEED Silver (potentially Gold), 164,000-square-foot office space is currently in the works, with tenant occupancy expected in summer 2016. “There were a number of exterior features and interior spaces intact from the early 1900s, including the main grand entrance lobby and a ballroom space on one of the upper floors,” says Burns. “We were allowed some flexibility due to the fact that some renovations were previously completed in the 1960s.”

Among other strategies, Commonwealth focused on replacing the outdated mechanical systems with a more efficient Variable Refrigerant Flow (VRF) system. An emphasis was also placed on bumping up the thermal efficiency of exterior walls and windows. The existing masonry exterior construction is a primary historic feature of the Ninth Street Office Building. “Removing or completely replacing the exterior brick and terra cotta masonry and mortar was not an option,” says Burns.

Commonwealth ArchitectsThe issue of how to improve the thermal resistance of the envelope was solved through the use of additional thermal insulation at the interior of the enclosure. Since the existing interior walls were deteriorated beyond repair, a new metal stud furring cavity was added to the interior of the solid brick masonry wall and closed-cell polyurethane foam insulation was sprayed into the cavity. Through this method, a total minimum R-value of 21 was achieved for the exterior wall.

Additionally, new high-quality aluminum clad wood insulated window units were installed to replace the existing retrofit window units. “The original historic windows were removed in the 1960s and so we removed those replacement windows and installed new windows which are not only historically accurate replicas, but are also highly efficient,” says Burns.

Burns and his team also made a point to lighten up the interior office space with more daylighting and better ventilation. “All of the old fluorescent lights were replaced with softer, energy-saving LED lights,” he says.

As an active member of the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), Commonwealth remains dedicated to achieving the delicate balance between successful historic rehabilitation and sustainable project requirements. “The question is not really whether these concepts are mutually exclusive, but rather how the project design team can take advantage of and incorporate the best of each of these approaches into a cohesive and holistic design that is environmentally, socially and fiscally responsible,” says Burns.

Instead of demolishing and rebuilding, Commonwealth Architects is continuing its mission of repurposing and reusing historic sites, holding on to the unique urban fabric of each city and generating a truly holistic solution.

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