Architects Create Value From Obsolescence

By Michael Persson, Contributing Writer, Providence Business News

The most common definition of innovation has technology hogging the limelight of public opinion with its up-to-the-minute gizmos and gadgets.

Northeast Collaborative Architects has bucked this “wow” trend because the firm’s six partners place less importance on visual marvels and more emphasis on a design philosophy that is contemporary, socially minded and versatile.

Mention the question of adaptive reuse, and company partner J. Michael Abbott, who is noted for his work in historic preservation, describes the micro-lofts that the firm designed in 2012 in the beloved but sidelined Arcade in downtown Providence.  The 1828 Greek Revival-style building, which is known as the oldest indoor shopping mall in the country and listed on the National Register of Historic Places, needed more than a facelift.

“We made this building viable for the next 50 years,” Abbott said.  “Before, it neither worked efficiently nor economically. Now it does.”

Here in the second-most-densely populated state in the nation, the value of space is on par with gold.  Architects who create space where there was none aren’t simply designing into the future, they are helping to repopulate downtown areas that have long stood empty.  In turning old buildings into new spaces, Northeast Collaborative Architects has about 100 examples under its belt.

In short, making useful new spaces is what it’s all about, but the process is not simple.  Many hurdles in working with these stately buildings need to be negotiated.  “The more restrictions you have, the more creative you have to be,” said Jeffrey Dale Bianco, the firm’s managing partner.

“When you’re working with landmarks, the brief has more to do with how to change something by not changing it,” Bianco added.  In the case of the $7 million Arcade project, adding 48 micro-lofts while maintaining the building’s original function as a small-business location meant creating a multi-use environment for young adults looking for affordable dwellings near their work and their social world, along with shops and other services. The wait list for these 225 to 450 square-foot units was overwhelming.

“Our belief is to not fight the buildings,” said John Grosvenor, the firm’s co-founder.  “You don’t go in to rip everything out.  You are judicious.”  All six partners believe that their ability to adapt to a client’s constraints rather than sweeping aside concerns in favor of wholesale change is the “nimble” philosophy that has seen them through the economy’s swoons and revivals.

As Abbott noted, “Within our company, we have six people who feed off each other, have all known each other for 20 years, and bring a combined experience amounting to 200 years.” Which alone could be classified as an architectural period.