Architect Ariel Aufgang on Adaptive Reuse and Converting a 1950s Factory in Dumbo


    Aufgang Architects is known for its adaptive reuse of landmark buildings as well as affordable housing (the latter is 40 percent of its practice). The firm is based in Suffern, N.Y., and works primarily in New York City. Aufgang Architects is converting the landmarked former Brillo factory at 200 Water Street in Dumbo into 15 luxury condos and, as part of the same project, is designing a new 12-story, 105-unit mixed-use rental building on the same lot at 181 Front Street. (Renderings for the two buildings are pictured above and below.) We spoke to principal Ariel Aufgang about adapting historic properties for contemporary use and the firm’s projects in Brooklyn.

    Brownstoner: How do you approach adaptive reuse?

    Ariel Aufgang: We ask how can we adapt a building to enhance the occupants’ experience of it, whether it’s a condo, hotel or office space. As architects, we’re very cognizant of the effect the building environment has on people’s daily lives. Also, the mix of historic character and modern amenities has a positive impact on commercial value.

    BS: Tell us a little bit about your design for the former Brillo Manufacturing Co.’s 1950 “daylight factory” in Dumbo. 

    AA: The former Brillo Factory building, 200 Water Street, is on a great block with a cobblestone street. As a purpose-built factory structure, its window sill heights are different on almost every floor to accommodate different size manufacturing equipment. One window sill is at five feet, and others at eight feet. As a landmarked building, the challenge was to find a way to convert the building to multi-unit residential while keeping the design. Our design involves removing 30 feet off the back of the building, which brings more daylight into the apartments. The original rear facade was painted concrete block with steel flashing on each floor plate. It wasn’t an esthetically conceived or pleasing design, just utilitarian. So we specified a precast concrete wall in a modular pattern that emulates the concrete blocks. The precast concrete wall gives the texture and feeling of the old concrete block wall, but in a fine finish with a smooth texture. In place of the original and unattractive steel flashing we changed the coursing size to a thinner piece, to indicate something was there. We added back the square footage we removed with a roof top addition. It’s a four-story building. Also, we aligned the new elements with the old features, literally and figuratively. For example, we designed an all-glass extension, about three feet out from the wall, which is pushed back from the street.

    BS: What were some of the goals and challenges with this project?

    AA: The challenge in repurposing the Brillo factory building was to keep its historic character and still having a modern building with desired amenities. The first floor ceiling height is approximately 14 feet, and ceilings on some floors are 12 feet high. But the room dimensions have to be in proportion to ceiling heights. No one wants a 10-foot-by-10-foot bedroom with a 12-foot-high ceiling. We realized if we employed open layouts, a floor-through living space from front to back, with multiple angles of light to enter the room, we can use the ceiling height in an appealing way. It almost becomes a gallery rather than just a bedroom squeezed into a tall space.

    An important aspect of the design was ensuring that the pedestrian experience on Water Street is not significantly changed. We reused many aspects of the original building. A huge loading dock that was there since the 1950s is replaced with a modern architectural grille that serves as a screen to shield the main entrance. You walk behind it to enter the building. Details like that are important. There is a scar on the building where at one time a bridge connected it to another factory across the street. We’re not just filling it in. We’re putting in floor to ceiling glass to show something special had been attached there.

    BS: You have said that adaptive reuse has a growing role to play in commercial real estate development in New York City.

    AA: I feel few things are as sustainable or green as repurposing a building. Think of the savings in energy and materials when you compare demolishing a building and starting from scratch vs. reusing the existing structure. Step one before you think about solar panels is to consider reusing the existing structure. That determination should also be made with non-landmarked historic structures, such as 272 Manhattan Avenue, a rental project in Harlem. Its interior felt like a regular old apartment building. We came up with an innovative way to insulate it while keeping the attractive exposed brick in the lobby and the stairwell. Details like that add to the experience of residents. Instead of hanging sheetrock on interior walls, we stripped off the plaster to reveal structural brick. Such a mix of contemporary materials and historic features conveys historic context in an aesthetically appealing way. It gives residents a connection to history that has a positive impact on the project’s commercial viability.

    BS: Is an old building more desirable and attractive than a new one?

    AA: If you compare two apartments, both very similar in size and amenities, one all new construction, and the other in a repurposed building with retained historic character that can’t be replicated with new construction methods, I would choose the unit in the older building. And since land throughout the City on which to build is increasingly difficult and expensive to find, adaptive reuse of existing structures is an important and growing real estate development trend.

    BS: What other projects are you working on now in Brooklyn?

    AA: Other projects include new-construction rentals on 4th Avenue in South Slope, and 490 Myrtle in Clinton Hill, an 80/20 project.

    490 Myrtle is a great example of how my architectural firm designs buildings to be visually compatible with the context of the block and the neighborhood. Our design for 490 Myrtle features a long brick facade broken into pairs of window bays reminiscent of courses of row houses. Now that the scaffolding is gone you can see that design worked. It’s a big building with a long facade, but it doesn’t feel like it. Its size and scale are appropriate for the neighborhood.

    BS: One of our commenters, when he saw the photo, he thought it was an older building. (Technically it is an addition on top of an existing one-story commercial building. The upper floors are new.)

    AA: [Laughs.] The amenities are new. At 470 4th Avenue, we took a similar approach. It’s a little tough along that corridor because very tall buildings are permitted there. We tried to break up the scale with deeply inset windows. When the sun moves over the building, the shadows change, and there is a play between that and interesting brick detailing. At 470, we specified columns running up the building with a special shape of brick. We spent a lot of time thinking about how does this building feel when you walk by.

    Brownstoner: What do you think of all the construction going on now in some parts of Brooklyn?

    AA: My view is that despite so many different neighborhoods experiencing such rapid development, Brooklyn won’t become as homogenous as some fear. The neighborhoods are still keeping their identity, and zoning helps ensure that. Neighborhoods evolve over time, and these will retain much of their character, as everyone wants.

    Renderings by Aufgang Architects






    All photos courtesy of Aufgang Architects

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