Run of the Mills

How do former industrial complexes or estates transform when they have been deprived of their original function and contemporary market demands are not immediately apparent? We are delighted to begin work this spring on three vast brownfield remediation and adaptive reuse projects in collaboration with Weston & Sampson (engineering) and RKG Associates (market analysis).

Union Hardware in Torrington, CT was established in 1854 along the Naugatuck River for the production of ice skates. The manufacturing facility later produced roller skates and golf club shafts until the 200,000sf complex was closed in 2006. William E. Wright’s and Son’s Mills, formerly Warren Cotton Mills, has been along the Quaboag River in Warren, MA since the early 1800’s. This 600,000sf complex produced knitted fabrics, wool blankets, and – during World War II – 14 million pounds of parachutes as well as rubber decoy tanks and trucks for the Ghost Army. The Searles Estate, located on 23 acres in the Historic District in Methuen, MA was developed by industrialist and philanthropist Edward F Searles.*  The magnificent estate dates from the late 19th century, and the landscaped grounds are defined by stone border walls and towers. 

The fate of the these – as well as many other such abandoned complexes whose initial reason for being has passed – begins under the silent shadow of abandonment or the legitimate fear of demolition. While each of these campuses have different histories and are in varying degrees of obsolescence, there are economically viable, contemporary adaptive reuse strategies that can bring them back into productive use. Many such places grew organically, in fits and starts as industrial processes and needs of production evolved.  Unfortunately, in the absence of care and maintenance, piecemeal is often how they are demolished, too.

Here are ten considerations for repositioning such historic complexes:

  • Shore up the shell: A sober assessment of each building’s structural condition is an essential first step.  There are difficult choices and tradeoffs. Do you halt the deterioration of the entire complex (regardless of its condition) or allocate limited resources only to those buildings that hold the most promise? It is helpful to resist falling under the spell if the ruin’s patina. 
  • Look under the rocks: In tandem with the architectural assessment, phase 1 and phase 2 environmental assessments uncover former industrial processes that are not immediately apparent and flag areas of concern. When contamination is present, identifying the appropriate level of clean-up and its remediation costs will limit (or expand) the range of possible new uses.  
  • Cast a wide net: Traditional economic analysis often confirms what you already know or simply highlights what is present in the market today.  Seek non-traditional uses and emerging niche markets that could flourish if new space was identified or could be shared with other businesses.  Bring such programs together to create a critical mass.  Avoid unrealistic expectations or silver bullets as there are rarely budgets for deep restoration.
  • Leverage the open plans: The open floor plans of industrial production were generic, robust and oversized. Such existing space can be repurposed for new uses, often with minimal effort and low-cost tactics. Many contemporary activities are attracted to the flexibility of space that large spans afford. Idiosyncratic building dimensions enable new forms of city living unlike the traditional double-loaded corridor.
  • Scale matters: To appreciate (and to make) adaptive reuse architecture, you have to love hybrids, superimpositions, overlayering, mix, contrast and contradiction. Making something new out of the past often requires balancing the demands of historic preservation requirements that require the contemporary insertion be both distinguishable from the original and harmoniously integrating with it. Grafting contemporary insertions onto historic structures results in compelling aesthetic hybrids.
  • Consider site boundaries as seams: Former industrial complexes and campuses had porous boundaries with their host communities. Residential, commercial and retail amenities were in close proximity to their employment base. Evaluate the site’s boundaries from alternate perspectives, including the reorientation of building entrances to enhance accessibility and mobility.  
  • Highlight productive tensions: The organic manner in which such campuses grow often results in courtyards that can be reprogrammed in compelling new ways. Structure the urbanism around the spatial configuration of these residual spaces, including the possibility of carving new openings into large buildings to increase access to natural light. The largest architectural contribution might actually be the removal of something. 
  • Start small and subtract: Many of these complexes have administration or service buildings on the periphery whose more modest scale enables a frugal first step. The rehabilitation and repositioning of smaller substructures can foster a turning point for transformation for the larger complex. Once smaller spaces are stabilized and activated their impact can multiply. A succession of limited changes can be more effective than a single large intervention.  
  • Span scales and time: Integrate both short and long-term planning. Work across scales and balance a bold vision for the future with the incremental and judicious steps necessary to get there.  Together with building stabilization, strengthening local partnerships and facilitating interim site activation through community events will bring attention to the property and create momentum. 
  • Work reiteratively: The architectural, environmental and economic evaluations should not happen in isolation.  They need to proceed in tandem with one another, pushing and pulling on the possibilities and enabling productive tensions between them to emerge. Adaptive reuse requires a reiterative model of working that is less linear. 

Gamble Associates is committed to urban regeneration and adaptive reuse. Too much of our heritage is lost when new construction is the default approach. There should be less demolition and more adaptive reuse of existing buildings, resulting in more sustainable development and efficient use of materials.

*While the Searles Estate is not technically a mill, the tycoon’s campus has a delineated boundary with gates and a variety of buildings built over the years. Like the other complexes, its original use has changed and the site awaiting contemporary strategies for reoccupation. 

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