Interview with ARCO/Murray Principal Ross Allen on Adaptive Reuse Considerations in the Chicago Market

Adaptive reuse is a growing trend in urban markets like Chicago. It refers to the process of reusing an existing building for a purpose other than which it was originally built or designed for. Examples include converting an old manufacturing plant into a brewery or former grocery store into a rock climbing facility.

Ross Allen, Principal of ARCO/Murray’s Tenant Solutions team, was a recent panelist on the Bisnow Chicago Building Repositioning and Adaptive Reuse event. He shared some key insights on the importance of early design-builder involvement, gave tips for working with preservationists and discussed the unique challenges that stem from converting or repositioning an older building asset.

Below are a few highlights:

Why is adaptive reuse a growing trend in the Chicago market?

Adaptive reuse is oftentimes a more socially conscience decision than building new, especially in densely urban areas. From an environmental standpoint, there is less of a carbon footprint. It can improve neighborhoods, create jobs and preserve cultural and community history. Investors and businesses alike are also financially incentivized through various city programs.

For instance, ARCO is currently the design-builder for The Terminal – an expansive 6.5 acre urban campus in Chicago’s West Humboldt Park. We’re converting a former railroad light manufacturing plant into 250,000 SF of innovative workplace and mixed use space that fit the existing character of the neighborhood. The project itself is part of Mayor Lori E. Lightfoot’s INVEST South/West initiative, which focuses on long-term economic development in underserved communities.

Why would someone not want to undergo an adaptive reuse project?

Someone might decide that adaptive reuse is not for them because of the design constraints, especially if needing to work with preservationists. Unknown or hidden construction issues can be costly to fix and/or add to the schedule if needing to use certain materials for historic replication that are not readily available. Lenders and investors also might not align on the long-term vision for the space.

Can you talk more about preservationists and how they factor into the project?

We have a few projects right now with businesses on the national register. My recommendation is to assemble a team right away that includes structural and MEP engineers, construction managers and architects – or use a design-builder who has that expertise all in-house. Having a team together early that understands a 100-year-old building is not going to be designed the same way as a new Class A office building is crucial to ensure client expectations are met. If going for historical tax credits, it’s important to understand what the potential design constraints will be and the impact it might have on a client’s vision or brand standards. The team can also advise on overall design aesthetic, creative opportunities, potential construction risks and what a realistic timeline looks like.

What are some of the potential construction risks?

You can’t go into a lot of these old brick and timber buildings and expect them to be perfect. There are going to be challenges, and that’s okay. The beautiful wood truss ceilings, exposed brick and historic feel are why a lot of people enjoy working and living in these environments. Most often though we see environmental, lead, roof, and structural issues. Historic buildings are oftentimes not ADA compliant as well.

If you choose to go the adaptive reuse route, how can you speed up the process?

Speed to market is important for most businesses, and with adaptive reuse projects, you can typically avoid the cumbersome entitlement process. Clients can also go through the design and permitting process to finalize their vision while demolition and structural repairs are simultaneously being performed by a design-builder. Not to sound like a broken record, but it can shave weeks, if not months, off the schedule when you get the right people involved early in the process.

If you’re interested in talking through a potential adaptive reuse project – Chicago or National – contact us today: or 331.251.2726.

P.S. Check out our What We Build Page’ for some of our favorite adaptive reuse projects.