Repurposing Smaller Buildings

Churches and other structures can be used for housing and more.

When Rick Reinhard was growing up in Syracuse, N,Y., in the 1960s, he said it wasn’t much of a stretch to say that there was a Catholic Church on every other corner. There seemed to be one for each ethnic group and even the parishes for Irish Catholics (of which his mother was one) were subdivided by class and income, he recalled.

“The idea of us going to a Polish Catholic Church was unthinkable,” said Reinhard, who now lives just outside Washington, D.C., and is an expert on superfluous religious properties.

Now, 60 years later, many of those churches have been closed as congregations have shrunk, people moved to the suburbs and worshipping habits have changed. It’s certainly not just Catholic houses of worship, either. Mainline protestant churches are shutting their doors by the scores as membership ages and many younger people stop going to services.

Churches are leaving empty lots of real estate to be repurposed or redeveloped.

They are leaving empty lots of real estate to be repurposed or redeveloped, sometimes as affordable housing, community centers, or even luxury condos, restaurants and nightclubs, said Reinhard, who spent 35 years in city government and later managed real estate holdings for the United Methodist Church. He now works as a consultant.

Citing figures from the Center for Analytics, Research and Data — which is sponsored by the United Church of Christ — Reinhard said that in the last decade between 3,850 and 7,700 houses of worship have been closing per year in the United States, or 75 to 150 congregations per week.

And that figure may accelerate, with roughly 100,000 of the remaining 340,000 houses of worship closing “in relatively short order,” he predicted.

While some reopen for other congregations, notably immigrant congregations, most churches remain empty, he said. “An empty house of worship, like any empty building, can be a security problem and can decrease the value of surrounding properties. Perhaps more importantly, an empty house of worship, especially one at a main intersection, can be seen as a symbol of community failure,” he wrote in a recent article for ICMA, a publication for city and county managers.

And it’s not just churches that are sitting empty around the country. In addition to huge office buildings emptied out by the pandemic, smaller structures such as former schools, old firehouses, grain mills, military barracks, doctors’ offices, lighthouses and even old Pullman rail cars are being repurposed for housing and other uses.

According to one study, countless other buildings were already underused, abandoned, or functionally obsolete even before the pandemic. The U.S. government alone is sitting on more than 40,000 of them, at least some of which could help ease the housing crisis, the report said.

“There is a huge deficit, nationally, of affordable housing,” Reinhard said. “And a huge surplus of faith properties, so it would seem to make sense to connect the two, which some cities are starting to do.

“But even where communities are cooperative, many neighborhoods like the fact that they’ve had a quiet church down the street from them for the past 50 to 100 years. Because of NIMBYism, they can be unwilling to accept new uses, particularly those that involve affordable housing. But they don’t like abandoned buildings, either.

“In Pasadena and San Diego, for example, there are efforts to allow faith institutions by right to put a significant amount of affordable housing on their properties. That’s somewhat controversial, because it overrides the typical land-use regulation process.” (By right generally means no special procedure is required to obtain a building permit in that district for that use.)

Churches present special challenges because their architecture can be unique with peaked roofs and large sanctuaries.

Reinhard said churches present special challenges because their architecture can be unique with peaked roofs and large sanctuaries. In addition, congregations often have deep emotional attachments to their buildings.

Moreover, church leaders usually do not have a real estate mindset and while they might talk to city officials about the food programs, homeless shelters and other social services they run, they seem to be loath to discuss selling buildings or land, he said. “They aren’t in the real estate business, but they should be,” he mused.

The exceptions to that reluctance to put faith properties on the block are the Catholic Church and the Mormon Church, Reinhard noted. That’s because they are both managed from the top down, with bishops and other lofty officials having the final say when it comes to selling churches and school buildings. Which often upsets local congregations.

Others are managed from the bottom up or have a hybrid hierarchy. Unitarians and the United Church of Christ, for example, run things on an individual fellowship basis, he explained, while mainline congregations like Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Methodists and Lutherans have mixed management.

“That means things can take a long time to be decided,” he said. “Meanwhile, maintenance of nearly empty buildings gets delayed, roofs continue to leak, ACHC systems fail, parking lots crumble and other problems fester.

“Church boards often want to hang on to properties until the bitter end. But they tend not to reinvest in the property in the meantime. That ends up being a problem for communities, because they don’t want buildings that are falling down.

“In Camden, N.J., a beautiful old stone church had a slate roof that would have cost $2 million to replace. On the one hand, you want to be authentic. On the other, the church can’t afford a $2-million roof replacement, nor probably can the city. That’s an extreme example, but there are thousands of those cases around America.

“I’ve written that 20 percent of the nation’s religious buildings are in what we deemed critical condition and 40 percent were right behind in serious condition. My experience and talks with others are that this is true across many denominations and across the United States.”

Reinhard, who is a former chief of staff for the mayor of Buffalo, N.Y., and worked in economic development, was assigned to the United Methodist bishop of New Jersey to deal with excess properties. Some towns there had churches — often closed — on many blocks in their downtowns.

“I compare it to the railroads in the 1950s, 60s and 70s, when they weren’t doing so well,” he said. “One day they woke up and understood they owned valuable real estate — in many cases in big cities — and they formed divisions that dealt with that. These days, they are as much in real estate as they are in the railroad business.”

Developers are snapping up churches to turn them into condos or apartments in Manhattan.

And while developers are snapping up churches to turn them into condos or apartments in Manhattan and other high-value markets, smaller cities have an excess of religious structures sitting empty.

Reinhard recalled that a speaker at a recent Main Street America conference said half the churches in the core area of Ottumwa, Iowa, (population 25,000) had closed in recent years, even though the population has remained steady.

According to a Gallup Poll from December, more than a third of Americans surveyed said they have stopped attending religious services regularly in their lifetimes. “Membership at many churches is literally fading away,” Reinhard said.

He said one of the difficulties with quantifying the amount of excess religious property is that “the data on churches is almost non-existent. It isn’t collected and where it is, the numbers aren’t reliable. People in the business are underestimating how many are emptying out or empty.”

While some churches have been turned into cultural centers, communities might only need one of those, while there might be dozens of former churches available, he explained. “And cultural centers require financial support. They are usually not money makers.”

Reinhard said his advice to church and civic leaders is to communicate about more than food and homeless programs. “Those things are certainly crucial, and they’ll leave a big gap if they disappear. But they need to discuss empty or emptying real estate, like what could it be, what will the zoning allow and building codes. Churches should ask what cities can do with incentives, such as density bonuses. It’s starting in some places, but more needs to happen.”

Chris Bury, a senior vice president with Foundry Commercial who heads its Religious, Education & Not-For-Profit division, said he takes a go-slow approach when dealing with congregations thinking about selling property.

“It can be hard for churches to give up places where members might have gone to school and their kids were baptized, where they got married and they held funerals for their loved ones,” he said. “They literally have a spiritual connection and that makes it harder to make a real estate decision.

“It takes more guidance, but that’s OK,” said Bury, who lives in Irvine, California, “I believe that one of our values at Foundry is backing up, even pausing, to thoroughly explain the process of what it means to sell and what it takes to sell or repurpose.

“Generally, it takes months and months of conversations, and we are happy to do that. We are wired that way. We deal with a lot of elders and walk them through the process.”

Bury’s company handled the transaction for a church property in Los Angeles where part of the land was set aside for a senior housing development. “Part of the agreement was to build a space for a church to meet that was leased for 20 to 40 years,” he said. “So, the church got to remain, but they unlocked the equity of the property and didn’t have the overhead burden of the facility.”

Likewise, he’s working on a sale in Long Beach, where a Lutheran church’s school building will be torn down and replaced with affordable housing in a taller structure. “The church is then going to remain in its building and share parking with the housing. They’ll also provide some services to the people in the housing, which will tie the two together.”

And in Fillmore, a small town in Ventura County, the school at a former church will be turned into multi-housing and another building on the town’s main street will be used for retail. The classic old church, he said, will be repurposed as a community meeting space, a wedding venue and for other uses.

Bury said his advice to congregation leaders is to take a serious look at their property, their membership and their upcoming needs. “They really have to think about what the future may hold and have a plan for the next five or 10 years. But there is really not one answer. I’ve found each church and each congregation is unique. However, they really need to start planning, as hard as that may be.”

There is a multitude of examples across the nation. In Pittsburgh’s Lawrenceville neighborhood, Sean Casey bought the then 94-old year-old St. John the Baptist Church in 1994 after the Bishop of Pittsburgh declared it obsolete and put it up for sale. The school had been closed for 20 years.

Armed with a liquor permit, Casey opened The Church Brew Works in the former house of worship, which was designed by architects Louis Beezer, Michael Beezer and John Comes, who reportedly hired the finest craftsmen of the time. Religious icons were removed by the diocese after the sale, but the flavor of the church remains.

The multi-colored glass of the Rose window stands as a kaleidoscopic backdrop for the turn-of-the-century pipe organ located in the church’s balcony. The hand-painted cypress beams on the high vaulted ceiling and the intricate European-style stained-glass windows would be very difficult to replicate today, he added.

Casey said pews were cut from their original 24-foot length and hand finished to the present 54-inch lengths. These “mini pews” were intentionally designed to be longer than the tables to facilitate ease of entry, he said.

The bar was built from the oak planks salvaged from the shortening of the pews. The reddish orange hue of the flooring comes from the original Douglas Fir floors, which were uncovered and meticulously restored after lying dormant under plywood for 50 years. The original eight lanterns in the center bay were removed, repainted gold and reinstalled after complete refurbishment. The lanterns now illuminate the detailing of the ceiling.

By far, the most breathtaking element is the position of the brew house tanks on the apse, the semicircular recess — often with a domed roof and typically at the eastern end — that contains the altar. “Because the altar was built as a centerpiece of the church, the three steel and copper tanks gleaming in the celestial blue backdrop is nothing less than captivating,” he said.

Casey said the main church is about 9,500 square feet and now has the principal dining area and the brewhouse. There is also an outdoor patio called the Hop Gardens. The two-story rectory was converted into a kitchen and also has a basement with a large wine cooler and freezer.

The 20,000-square foot former school is home to the fermentation and cellar operations in the basement. The first floors are used for storage of cans, packaging materials, pallets of grains, merchandise, tools and supplies.

As for the brewpub itself, Casey said it’s been a success in the popular Lawrenceville neighborhood, which is similar to Brooklyn, N.Y. It’s home to numerous hi-tech companies, as well as the National Robotics Engineering Center, Carnegie Mellon Robotics Academy and the Lawrenceville Farmers Market.

In San Francisco, the old Richardson Hall at the corner of Hermann and Laguna streets has been repurposed with 40 units of LGBTQ-friendly senior housing and residential amenities in its upper stories. It also includes new openings to the street giving access for retail and office space for Open House, which co-developed the property with Mercy Housing California.

Richardson Hall was built in 1924 in the Spanish Colonial Revival style as a teacher’s school and was part of San Francisco State University. Because the building was designated a landmark by the city, maintaining its historic fabric was a priority for the design teams from Van Meter Williams Pollack and Page & Turnbull.

Elisa Skaggs, an architect with Page & Turnbull said the original windows were kept, the exterior stucco was restored, and when historic murals were found on the premises, work was halted until they could be preserved by an art conservator. They are now on display for residents and visitors to enjoy.

In Miami, the former Firehouse 2 has been turned into the Omni Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA). Designed by August C. Geiger, the fire station was built in 1926 and listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1989. The building is important both in its historical architecture and cultural standing. Its location is a vital crossroads between major neighborhoods including Wynwood and Downtown.

Omni Community Redevelopment Agency in Miami, FL

Courtesy of Omni CRA

Following a top-to-bottom renewal, the Mediterranean revival building has been restored to its former stature and is once again being used for the benefit of the community. Officials with the CRA said Firehouse 2 is part of a rapidly changing streetscape that promises to be a vital community gathering place.

New restaurants and businesses emerge from restored buildings and warehouses.

As new restaurants and businesses emerge from restored buildings and warehouses, the pedestrian-friendly streetscape near the firehouse is evolving into a future economic hub for South Florida — one where art, events, restaurants and technology converge.

In Madison, Wisconsin, the former Garver Feed Mill is now an event space, home to several restaurants and a number of small businesses. There’s no record of exactly what executives at United States Sugar Co. were thinking at the beginning of the 20th century when they considered designs for their new sugar beet factory on Madison’s East Side. But the company ended up with a rather elegant, four-story structure with Romanesque arches and a turret that today is on the National Register of Historic Places.

Locals were so impressed with the building, which opened in 1906, that they dubbed it the Sugar Castle. At its peak, it could process 500 tons of sugar beets a day, according to the Wisconsin Historical Society.

Fast forward 116 years and the building, lowered by two stories and converted into a grain-processing plant in the 1930s, has been lovingly restored at a cost of $15 million — mostly from city funds. Now known as the Garver Feed Mill, it sits in a lively section of Madison’s isthmus, and hopes are it will serve as an anchor for a “food innovation corridor” in the city. The Capital City Bike Trail runs beside it, and it’s literally a stone’s throw from the 16-acre Olbrich Botanical Gardens.

And just to add something quirky, the Whistlestop B&B in New York Mills, Minnesota, is home to several restored railroad cars that serve as lodgings, in additional to a Victorian home and a separate cottage.

Jann Lee, who has run the popular B&B for 30 years, said she and her husband acquired three Pullman cars and a caboose from private owners and that they were all in poor condition “because they’d been sitting around falling apart for years. Nearly everyone in town turned out and we even had a police escort when they were brought in,” said Lee, who figures each of the railcars cost $100,000 to restore.

Pullman train car turned into the Whistlestop B&B in New York Mills, Minnesota

Courtesy of Whistlestop B&B

“They needed new roofs and they didn’t have plumbing or electricity,” she said. “They now each have big whirlpool jet tubs, queen beds, a fridge, microwave and a fireplace.”

Fortunately, zoning was not an issue because her B&B sits on an acre and “New York Mills is a small town (population 1,400). We have regulations, but they are not that strict.”

Besides, she was serving on the zoning board at the time. “But that didn’t really have anything to do with getting things approved,” she quipped.

Repurposing Construction Materials

In an earlier life, David Drake remodeled homes and hung drywall, more of it than he’d like to remember. Drake, who became an architect and now teaches at Washington State University (WSU) in Pullman, noted that a lot of the drywall was tossed in dumpsters as leftovers from windows, door spaces and other trims.

In fact, according to industry estimates, as much as 15 percent of the 24 billion square feet of drywall — also known as sheetrock or gypsum board — that’s sold annually in the United States ends up as waste.

Because gypsum gives off a potent sulphuric rotten egg smell when it is broken down by bacteria, it has been banned from dumps in some counties and states, Drake said.

“I was by no means a pro at hanging drywall and I hated every inch of it that I hung,” said Drake, who is director of the WSU’s SDC Fabrication Labs. He also co-directs the Reuse Design Laboratory, which is developing innovative applications for low-value construction waste.

“Top drywallers are super fast and super efficient and they like nothing more than a new construction project where they can go in and blow it out as fast as they possibly can,” he said. “The reason there is waste is actually for very good reasons of efficiency. That waste results in better installations, better performance and less cracks. We don’t think waste can be reduced at the source —  the building sites —  so the solution is really to find other uses for it.”

For the past six years, Drake and colleague Taiji Miyasaka, a professor at WSU’s School of Design & Construction, have been working on ways to recycle sheetrock. They hope that could lead to reducing the cost of building and make housing more affordable, as well as limit the amount of drywall going into landfills.

They began developing drywall blocks in 2017 with a grant from the American Institute of Architects. They also received an Amazon Catalyst grant to move the project from laboratory scale to a demonstration structure. The blocks are made almost entirely from drywall waste and a binder made from industrial byproducts.

They are waterproof and lighter than earth blocks, bricks or concrete blocks. The researchers are partnering with local contractors to get the waste, and architecture students are using a press to build the blocks, which look like masonry bricks. The bricks are similar to adobe or compressed earth blocks, but these blocks are superior, especially for insulation.

Lab tests of the blocks show compression strengths that are approaching the values of CMUs (concrete blocks) and are far higher than compressed earth blocks or an adobe block or most insulating concrete blocks. “But in talks with the Washington State Masonry Association, we learned that commercialization of a load-bearing structural unit to replace a concrete block is probably about a decade out in terms of getting necessary government permit approvals,” he said.

“So, in an effort to get our products to market as soon as possible and have a real impact in terms of removing a problematic waste material from the environment, the team shifted its emphasis, with support from a Murdoch Trust Commercialization Grant, to developing non-load bearing interior applications for the blocks — applications that are less structural and more interior, architectural; satisfying acoustic requirements; and meeting fire partition needs, as gypsum by its nature is a fire protective material.”

Drake said developing new applications and markets for recycled drywall material is a top priority for national organizations like the Construction and Demolition Recycling Association. In addition to making construction bricks that are made from more than 90 percent sheetrock debris, they are developing a whole suite of other uses that they refer to as drywall waste technologies, including a rigid insulation foam that would be similar in application to styrofoam insulation and offer much greater fire protection.

“We are also looking into ways that we can use the drywall waste foam as a spray-on fireproofing agent for steel beams,” he said. “The foam technology is almost entirely made up of waste materials. The binder, for example, is waste latex paint and it is also 95-98 percent drywall waste and waste cellulose fiber.”

“There has been significant commercial interest in both products and the university hopes to conclude licensing agreements with interested manufacturers soon so we can get these things on the market,” he said.

They also recycle other construction materials like scrap metals to help lower the cost of building new homes. Their hope is this can eventually boost the ability of homebuilders to create more housing options for low-income families by incorporating low-cost scrap material rather than new and more costly building materials. “It’s a fascinating project that demonstrates how effective scrap recycling is, worthy of further research, investments, and expansions,” Drake said. “Scrap recycling has proven to be an economic boon, creating jobs at recycling centers across the nation that are taking scrap and recycling it for new manufacturing uses, including in construction projects.”

“Additional technologies are under development in our lab at earlier stages. And there is certainly no lack of material waste out there to be turned into other products,” he concluded.


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