How Adaptive Reuse Can Help Solve the Affordability Crisis

Jeff Bone of the Chicago-based firm LBBA believes that working with what’s been left behind can pave the way for the future.
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In the war of words, policies and proposals aimed at solving America’s ongoing housing crisis, much of the fighting has centered around the all-important Development Question: whether new construction alone can bring down prices, or whether aggressive regulation is needed to control costs. Somewhat neglected in all the back and forth is a slight yet essential twist on the first option—whether existing buildings, ones already standing but un- or under-utilized, can be effectively transformed into residences, adding more units to the market without the ecological and social disruptions of building anew.

Enter Chicago firm LBBA. Since its debut in the late 1980s, the office has made a specialty of affordable housing, designing dozens of multifamily projects around the Midwest; in the last decade, their portfolio has included not just ground-up buildings but an impressive list of adaptive reuse commissions, taking everything from abandoned hotels to decommissioned schools and reinventing them as subsidized homes for people with low incomes. 

A fixture at LBBA from the beginning, and a named principal there since 1998, Jeff Bone has been a key player in the firm’s turn to the adaptive housing model, proving again and again how creative thinking and resourceful design can produce quality homes in the unlikeliest of places. It isn’t always easy, but as the architect tells Dwell, the approach represents a critical weapon in the affordability arsenal.  

Tell us a little about the current housing scene in Chicago—the challenges, the advantages, what it’s like doing housing there.   

A big question! Like many cities, we’re experiencing huge gaps in affordable housing. The gaps appear across the whole spectrum of affordability, from very low-income people who might qualify for public housing, up through workforce housing, to families, even for the kind of people who work in our office—there’s a need for more affordable housing across the board. All these needs have been increasing even as the high-end housing in the city has gone through the roof.   

The good news is that Chicago has a richness of nonprofits who provide supportive services and build affordable projects. We have a lot of repeat clients that we’ve been working with for many years, and the current mayoral administration really has focused on the issue, as for example, with its Invest Southwest program, which is focusing on underserved neighborhoods and on the West and South Side, providing not only low-cost housing but entire mixed-use environments, like having a library under an apartment building. There’s a lot of innovation right now happening around these projects, and you’re seeing a lot of cool things.

The 37th Street School apartments in Milwaukee, WI.

The 37th Street School apartments in Milwaukee, WI.

Certainly one of those cool things (several of them actually) has been the adaptive reuse housing designs from LBBA. How did the firm first start doing this kind of work?

I think the one that really first got us charged up and excited about adaptive reuse was back in 1993, when we did a teenage shelter for [Chicago area non-profit] the Night Ministry. For that project, we took an old Victorian "six-flat," which was vacant, and inserted a 16 bed shelter with a community kitchen, semi-private bunks, built-in furniture, and consulting areas on the ground floor. It was then that we realized, Hey, you could take a lot of these old Chicago background buildings that are truly the fabric of the city and you could breathe new life into them. 

In the years after that, you started seeing a lot of affordable developers and non-profits on the lookout for existing buildings, thinking of new uses for them. There were obvious advantages: Chicago is a brick city, the buildings are solid—it’s a great palette to start with. Of course, at the beginning, a lot of those buildings were also more affordable to purchase.

Formerly the Carling Hotel, the single-room occupancy building has been reworked for low-income residents in Chicago’s Old Town neighborhood.

Formerly the Carling Hotel, the single-room occupancy building has been reworked for low-income residents in Chicago’s Old Town neighborhood.

That’s obviously changed a bit. Besides the cost of acquiring these properties, what are the particular challenges to doing residential conversions like these?

There’s challenges all the way through—interesting challenges, but tough ones. A lot of it has to do with updating the systems in the buildings, how to distribute new wiring and plumbing and mechanicals, all without disrupting the historic structure. We’re usually following some sort of sustainability metric, and that means adding insulation, new power plants, everything. We work with contractors early on to do investigative work, poke around, selectively deconstruct portions of the structures to understand how they’re built and make sure we make the right moves. It’s a balancing act, and you have to do it while keeping an eye on costs. From that perspective it’s much easier to build a new building: there’s so many fewer unknowns, which makes cost control so much easier to do. Naturally many developers find that more attractive. 

Which is unfortunate, right—it feels like there are so many abandoned buildings in American cities, you could fix the whole housing problem right there. How do you get over that initial obstacle and do reuse in a way that makes sense?

Ultimately, you need the right building and the right backing. Take our 37th St. School project, which we finished last year in Milwaukee. We started with a 1911 brick schoolhouse, right in the middle of a working-class neighborhood. What we’ve found is that schools are very well suited to reuse as housing: the depth is very easily translated into units, you have wide hallways for social interaction, and at 37th St. we were able to turn the gym into exercise and community spaces. Working with the Wisconsin Housing and Economic Development Authority, we were then able to secure not just Low-Income Housing Tax Credits, but also tax credits for historic buildings, since the school was on the national registry. So you need a bunch of things to come together—but when they do, the outcome is definitely more than the sum of its parts.  

A room at Buffett Place in Chicago. The building supplies affordable housing for those with mental illnesses or who are struggling to find housing.

A room at Buffett Place in Chicago. The building supplies affordable housing for those with mental illnesses or who are struggling to find housing.

In 2019, we completed Harvest Commons, a conversion of a beautiful Art Deco hotel from the late 1920s [on the West Side of Chicago] that had been empty for over a decade. I was walking down the street shortly after it opened, and a man said to me, "This building is like Rip Van Winkle! It was asleep, and now it’s waking up." That’s the power of adaptive reuse housing projects, the way they can breathe life back into a neighborhood. Their effects go so much further than the property line.   

Top photo of the interior of the Marshall SRO project in Chicago by Mark Ballogg.

Related Reading: 

"You’re Finally Seeing Cracks in the NIMBY Armor"

Kansas City’s Tara Raghuveer Has a ‘North Star’ and It’s True Social Housing

Ian Volner
Writer and critic Ian Volner has contributed articles on architecture and design to New York Magazine, Architect, The Paris Review, and Interior Design, among other publications. He lives in Manhattan.


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