Builders & Contractors

Adaptive Building Reuse: What’s Old is New Again


SFS Architecture holds a niche in Kansas City’s adaptive building renovation movement.

Evidence of Kansas City’s deep historical roots can be seen all across the metro. Peppering the skyline are buildings that once housed some of the area’s earliest businesses, representing a whole host of industries ranging from skilled trades and financial services to retail and entertainment. In their time, many of these businesses were on the leading edge of modernity, and the buildings housing them were architectural marvels.

Kwame Smith, adaptive reuse and renovation expert for SFS Architecture

The area’s history as represented through its buildings is a commodity not lost on contemporary business. Over the last decade or so, trends demonstrate business’ recognition of the intrinsic value of the structures built by the hands of skilled craftsmen of a century or more ago. With this bent, modern leaders are moving forward with a hefty emphasis on the legacies left by some of Kansas City’s most prominent figures by moving into the buildings constructed by predecessors and conducting business from these historic locations.

While the notion of adapting a historic building to modern business is romantic, applying the adaptive reuse/renovation model is full of challenges. The aesthetics of fine woodworking, iron works and stained glass can be appreciated by all, but the structural underpinnings of construction practices from 100 years ago, as well as the infrastructure requirements of modern business, translates to a plethora of considerations before renovation can be successful.

“Determining feasibility of adaptive reuse and renovation is the first step in figuring out whether or not a move to a historic structure is doable,” says Kwame Smith. Smith is a 10-year architect and project manager veteran with SFS Architecture Inc., located in downtown Kansas City, Mo. He’s expert in applying adaptive reuse and renovation practices to make old buildings useful again.

“We have a good stock of historic buildings here,” he says.

“The ability and willingness of area businesses to revive old buildings in Kansas City is an exciting prospect,” ~ Kwame Smith, Project Manager at SFS Architecture Inc.

Smith starts with what he calls a “criteria matrix,” which is a list of pros and cons associated with a particular site. This step includes examining everything from structural soundness of an existing building, determining space use needs relative to existing walls and columns, as well as parking space for employees and customers. Other considerations include an assessment of a building’s environmental hazards like mold and asbestos.

Information gathered at the front end, Smith says, means giving owners a clear vision of what’s needed to make a space workable. This gives owners a realistic timeframe and budget for project completion when a space is selected. It also helps owners avoid getting knee deep into renovation on a property where a pass should’ve been taken. For example, if existing parking is too limited in one space, purchasing an adjacent property could be an option. By the same token, if a structure is rife with complications, it’s sometimes better for owners to keep a lookout for another location altogether.

Smith says, “The evaluation process can take anywhere from two or three months up to a year, depending on the project scope.” Ideally, owners will scout out ten to twelve potential properties and have budget estimations in mind. All of this streamlines the time and cost of projects.

Going in with eyes wide open is prudent advice as there are always surprises. Smith attributes these surprises to the vastly different construction practices of the past. For instance, use of lead paint and asbestos—once common practice—means workers fully outfitted in HazMat suits will be among the first contractors on site. Although an off-putting image for most, savvy clients understand and accept this portion of the job as simply part of the process.

The concept of adaptive reuse and renovation as a niche within the architectural industry has come about over the last decade with a particular uptick in the last four or five years.

Always welcoming jobs in this realm, Smith says one project in which he takes particular pride is the renovated building at 928 Grand St. now owned by UMB Financial Corp. Robert Alexander Long, a lumber magnate of the day, constructed the building which opened in 1907 and was known as the R.A. Long building. It was one of the first all-steel framed structures in Kansas City and, at 16-stories, was also the city’s tallest building. As the city’s first million-dollar building, the cost came in at $1.4 million.

Purchased by UMB in 2000, the building included the use of ornate mahogany and cherry woods on the eighth and fourteenth floors. The floors had already been designated as part of the National Register of Historic Places, meaning restoration efforts required staying as close as possible to the original specifications.

Lutjen, Inc break area that’s built to LEED Silver certified standards, a rarity in the Kansas City business environment.

Restoration of the R.A. Long building took several years and was completed at a cost of several million dollars. Although more commonly today known as the UMB building, city leadership still bows to the area’s founding fathers. In a presentation about the building to Friends of Kansas City Library in 2010, R. Crosby Kemper said, “Robert Alexander Long’s legacy remains a series of pinnacles on our skyline.”