Best Affordable Housing Design 2017: Loft Living in the Rust Belt

In 1919, the A.S. Kreider Shoe Company moved into a newly built, 64,000-square-foot factory.

Throughout the years, the large brick building in Lebanon, Pennsylvania, has served as the home of Lebanon Dress Company, Hermann Handkerchief, and, now, Kreider Commons, the 2017 Senior Housing News Architecture & Design Award winner in the “Best Affordable Housing” category.

Recently, The Woda Group, Marks Thomas Moseley Architects and Kinsley Construction transformed the largely vacant building in the Rust Belt from a crumbling eyesore to a community that “beautified the neighborhood,” Manny Gonzalez, principal at KTGY Architects and a 2017 SHN Architecture & Design Awards judge, tells Senior Housing News.

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“The complexity of what they did is pretty incredible,” Gonzalez says.

The Concept

In many cases, affordable housing communities look like they “come off of an assembly line,” according to Dan Cinelli, managing principal at Perkins Eastman and a 2017 SHN Architecture & Design Awards judge.

“If a senior came home a little tipsy, they’d be hard pressed to figure out which house they lived in,” he tells SHN.

That was never likely to occur at Kreider Commons, as its open floor plans offer residents plenty of opportunities to design and decorate their apartments in unique ways, Cinelli notes.

“For the most part, when you think about affordable housing, developers have to make the apartments small and one-bedroom,” he says. “Here, you give them 700 square feet and say, ‘however you want to use it!’”

Still, deciding upon the project’s final look took some imagination at first.

“I believe we first saw the building in 2013 or 2014,” Andy Cohen, senior vice president at Ohio-based developer The Woda Group, tells SHN. “When we first looked at it, it was for sale, and it barely had electric. It had no running water. No heating or cooling systems at all. Broken windows. It was really a derelict of a building.”

The structure did have a lot of potential, however.

“The beauty about this building is that it’s six stories, it’s a perfect rectangle, it is heavy timber…and it’s wide enough that you could retrofit a double-loaded corridor inside of it,” Cohen says.

The Construction

The Kreider Commons project had a $12.1 million budget, and The Woda Group was “pretty disciplined” in sticking to it, according to Cohen.

Still, when construction began, the stakeholders involved knew they wanted Kreider Commons to be certified LEED Platinum. To accomplish this, and to retain the original character of the building, Marks Thomas Moseley Architects had to tread carefully.

“We wanted to keep some of the history inside the building, but we had to create almost a building within a building to have the insulation and systems that we needed,” Faith Nevins Hawks, a principal at Marks Thomas Moseley Architects and the principal in charge of the Kreider Commons project, tells SHN. That wasn’t the only challenge that had to be overcome during Kreider Commons’ construction, though.

“There was a water main break in the winter, which flooded the basement of the building and froze,” Cohen says. “Retrofitting the elevators was a challenge, and there were a number of issues with stormwater management.”

Naturally, the potential challenges that come with repurposing an older building can scare off certain developers.

“I think a lot of developers are very concerned with doing an adaptive-use project because there’s always the discovery of the unknown,” Hawks explains. Fans of certain home remodeling television shows know the scenarios well—developers may find surprises, whether in the form of toxic mold or a rotting foundation, that were unexpected, and therefore add unexpected costs to the project’s budget.

Still, Hawks argues, the benefits of repurposing an older building can outweigh the risks.

“There’s the ability to create a very sustainable project and a project that has architectural character that you wouldn’t find in new construction,” she says.

Overall, the look and feel of Kreider Commons impressed the judges.

“They did such a great job with something that was such an eyesore before they took it over,” Gonzalez says.

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The Completion

The 63,926-square-foot, 50-unit Kreider Commons was officially completed in August 2016. The building was leased up “right away,” and it remains 100% occupied with a 25-person waitlist, according to Cohen.

All of the units are either one- or two-bedroom and meant to be leased to seniors aged 62 or older.

The finished building has amenities typically seen in other multifamily or affordable housing communities—a library, a computer room, a community space with a shared kitchen. But Kreider Commons also has an amenity that Hawks believes is pretty unique: a “grandchild room,” featuring walls painted with chalkboard paint, where residents can entertain their grandchildren if they watch them during the day.

“It was one of the first buildings where we accommodated grandchildren,” Hawks says of her experience working with Marks Thomas Moseley Architects. “Kreider Commons has a play area and and a place to store toys…it’s a space that doesn’t have to be in your apartment where you can take care of a grandchild part time.”

The residents’ actual apartments, meanwhile, resemble those that typically appeal to a much younger generation, the judges agree.

“The interior spaces have a lot of drama and character to them,” Gonzalez says. “I think it’s really great—it’s a place where a millennial would like to live.”

The fact that Kreider Commons was originally a shoe factory means that it gives off a “loft” vibe, as most apartments have brick walls, tall ceilings and extra-large windows, or features that millennials sometimes pay big bucks for in other, larger cities.

On the whole, the success of Kreider Commons should remind senior housing developers that great projects—affordable or otherwise—can potentially result from repurposing older, unused buildings.

“One of the most important things that we can do today is take advantage of existing buildings that we have and repurpose them or renovate them,” Gonzalez says. “Keep an eye out for opportunities that you may not have been looking at before. If you have some creativity and some vision, you might be able to take something that no one wanted and turn it into something great.”

Written by Mary Kate Nelson

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