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Converting Residential Homes into Commercial Buildings

Repurposing an old house into a commercial-use building is no easy task. The process involves working with city officials on building codes, retrofitting the building for accessibility and updating its infrastructure. In fact, many builders choose to forego the hassle by demolishing the original structure and building new.

But an ambitious group of builders recognize the value of a timeworn home, pushing through homes’ original quirks in order to preserve a part of history.

Here’s how three remodelers converted old homes into commercial buildings.

A Wisconsin Nature Conservancy

After the owners of more than 300 acres on the edge of Kettle Moraine State Forest Preserve in Wisconsin passed away, their children donated the land to the state. The owners, a surgeon and his wife, had planted hundreds of trees all over their property in the hope of leaving their home as a learning place where schoolchildren could visit to learn about natural resources, says Rick Hartig, a project manager for the State of Wisconsin who was in charge of the project. Converting the 1950s split-level home into a nature conservancy, offices for park staff and a conference center wasn’t an easy task.

Because the home was vacant for more than 10 years, many unforeseen problems, including pests and rot, added to the cost and project time, which took more than a decade to complete. “The original project intent was to do modest modifications,” Hartig says about the nature conservancy, which opened in June 2012. The project was expanded considerably when additional enhancements had to be incorporated.

A successful repurposing process transformed the living room, which features floor-to-ceiling windows, into a conference room that hosts natural history exhibits. The kitchen was refurbished for catering use, and the garage became a communal workspace. A section of the lower level, which features views of the surrounding rolling hills through its floor-to-ceiling windows, is the formal conference room. Three upstairs bedrooms were transformed into offices for park staff, while two automatic handicap accessible-lifts were added to the first floor.

A New Mexico Office

When Stanley Mount, owner of construction company Mount Corporation, saw a Southwest ranch-style house on historic Rio Grande Boulevard in Albuquerque, N.M., he knew it would make the perfect location for his company’s office. “It’s close to the interstate, and it’s a rock star address for Albuquerque,” Mount says.

Built in 1946, the single-level home’s electrical and mechanical systems offered very few electrical outlets, with little room inside the walls for additional electrical wiring. Due to the home’s clay tile masonry construction, Mount had to install a two-inch thick metal stud wall along the perimeter of the existing wall to allow for extra wiring. The original wall furnace and evaporative cooler were replaced with a new, high efficiency “split” HVAC system that separates hot and cold air. Cast-iron sewer lines were switched to PVC pipes and galvanized water lines were replaced with copper pipes. He also added a ramp to the front porch to satisfy accessibility requirements.

The project’s design review and approval process took approximately four months, with another 90 days for the renovation. It was completed in August 2010.

A North Carolina Sunday School

In Charlotte, N.C., a two-story brick house built in the 1940s was donated to the Selwyn Avenue Presbyterian Church to use as its Sunday school. The original plans featured classrooms on both levels, plus a 17-space parking lot.

Even though Craig Isaac, the project’s architect, submitted the plan to the city of Charlotte’s building department for an optional preliminary review, it wasn’t until the plan review process when city leaders voiced concerns.  The fire department raised concerns that the proposed parking lot was too small and lacked sufficient turning radius for fire trucks. To keep the property’s appearance consistent with the rest of the neighborhood, Isaac compromised by posting a “No Truck Access” sign at the lot’s entrance.

During the plan review process, the city also objected to building classrooms upstairs unless the stairway was widened to 42 inches to provide safe access to an exit, Issac says. There was a change in the interpretation of the rehab code,” says Isaac, who owns Craig W. Isaac Architecture in Charlotte, N.C., “(The city) insisted on minimum exit requirements after we submitted for plan review, so we changed the upper floor to storage."

Although the issue was overlooked in the review, Isaac still recommends presenting blueprints to the city’s building department before starting any project. “It saves you from doing a lot of work that might not get approved,” he says. Once he had the permit approval “all the work and inspections went well without any issues,” Isaac says about the project, which was completed in March 2010.

An Appreciation for History

In all three cases, the houses’ interiors were retrofitted while the exteriors were kept close to the original design in order to preserve the historic feel of the area.  Mount admits that renovating the house cost more time and money than simply tearing it down. “But at the end of the day,” he says, “I just wanted to maintain the vintage flavor of the neighborhood.”


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