High Plains Architects



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We are proud to announce an extremely exciting renovation project! It’s been so hard for us to keep quiet about this until now. You may have read about what we’re doing with the old Billings Hardware building in these recent articles in the Billings Gazette; “Apartments, retail planned for boarded up, century-old building in downtown Billings” and “Gazette opinion: Another wave of downtown renaissance”.

High Plains Architects is working with the building owner, Dianne LaFever, to reuse the Billings Hardware building and continue the revitalization of downtown. This type of historic renovation is called “adaptive reuse”. We’re retaining and preserving the building’s essential historic features while bringing it back to life as something new with new uses. Once this project is complete, there will be a main floor for commercial, a basement for additional commercial, and two stories that will hold 28 studio, one- and two-bedroom apartments.

There’s been a wave of excitement and anticipation surrounding this project and the future of downtown Billings. However, we’ve also realized there are some questions you may have about why we took on and are so excited about this project. We’d like to answer these questions and help clarify why adaptive reuse and also development services are at the heart of what we do.

Why would architects develop a building?

It can be unusual for architects to also wear the developer hat. However, we find that our development services are sometimes essential for a project to get off the ground, get done, and become a successful, productive asset in our communities. Many property owners simply don’t have the time or expertise required to develop a project; we also like the control it provides us to make decisions that yield the biggest return for the project goals. Those goals always include sustainable financial performance, but they also typically include a number of other aesthetic, historic, environmental, or community goals. Developing projects ensures we can optimize the project.

This is true whether we’re working on a multifamily residential, commercial, historic renovation, or urban renewal project. For a project like the old Billings Hardware building, it is imperative that we work as both developer and architect to be able to accurately conduct feasibility studies, plan how to preserve the special qualities of this building--and secure historic tax credits--while exploring new uses for the space, determine accurate pro formas, etc.

Isn’t it more expensive to renovate a historic building than demolish it and build a new one?

In our experience, this has never been the case. The mantra and philosophy of High Plains Architects is to ‘listen to the building’: we make sure the proposed new uses are compatible with the fundamental nature of the existing building. If the structural system of an existing building needs to be dramatically reconfigured to accommodate a new use, we won’t pursue it. That’s not ‘listening to the building,’ and that’s where a lot of money gets dropped into a project.

But if you’ve listened to the building, you’ll find that you’re coming out ahead when renovating an existing building. The foundation and superstructure is already completed; they may need some repairs, and so we repair them. The shell is largely complete; we will likely need to add insulation, replace the roof, and improve the windows, but the rest is already in place. And then we’re typically putting in all new mechanical, electrical, and plumbing systems, the same as we would in a new construction project.

We have a long track record of completing historic projects that are better and less expensive than new construction projects, with upfront savings in the range of 10% to 30% in addition to having the wonderful patina of an historic project. These are lessons we’ve learned over time because we’re committed to making the projects work and are always working on better ways to make the projects happen. We’re lucky to have an efficient and passionate team that makes this possible by bringing various expertise and experience to the table.

Who are the team members working on this project and what expertise/talents they lend to this project?

Our staff know how to work with the International Existing Building Code to maximize the value of a building’s existing assets while also protecting public health and safety. We’re also well-versed with the approach and methods that the National Park Service requires for rehabilitating historic structures.

Jim Schilke, PE of Structural Engineering Design provides the structural expertise needed to help us repair historic buildings intelligently and prepare them for new uses. Some structural engineers are far too conservative, not giving buildings that have stood the test of time for more than 100 years any credit, and essentially requiring that they essentially have a whole new structural system inserted. Not Jim. He understands and calculates the value of the existing structural system using the International Existing Building Code so that we are strategic in making new investments in the structural system.

MKK Consulting Engineers are our mechanical and electrical engineering co-collaborators in almost all of our projects because of their commitment to and expertise in high performance design. We like working with MKK on historic projects because we develop heating and cooling systems solutions that are compact, non-intrusive, and relatively easy to insert into existing buildings in addition to being very energy efficient. That means we don’t have to put in dropped acoustical tile ceilings; we get to maintain the lofty, daylight-filled historic spaces, and the original ceilings remain visible.

What are the biggest challenges on this project?

While there will certainly be physical challenges associated with rehabilitating the building, such as rebuilding the south masonry wall that is currently shedding bricks or repairing or replacing deteriorating sandstone window sills, there are number of highly capable tradespeople who complete the work in a highly professional manner. We research and specify the materials and methods needed for durable and a historically-appropriate solution, and they do the work accordingly.

The biggest challenge we typically face in projects we develop is pulling together the equity financial resources needed for the project. Bank financing will cover a maximum of about 65% of financial resources needed for the project; the rest needs to come from a variety of other sources, such as grants from tax increment finance districts, historic tax credits, and individuals who are interested in investing in downtown Billings. These investments typically have higher risk than banks are seeking. While we know that there are a number of people passionate about downtown, finding the people who have both the means and interest in investing in a project takes time.

Why is this an exciting project for your firm?

Bringing life to old buildings is important to us. By finding new uses for old buildings, we can preserve what’s significant and special about a community while giving it new life. The old Billings Hardware building project is especially significant, because this project is in a prominent location in downtown. And it continues our mission: we are the tip of the spear of the small city renaissance, revitalizing downtowns with housing and walkable services and workspaces.

We are passionate about developing healthy, livable, walkable, vibrant neighborhoods and communities. High Plains Architects has worked on many significant rehabilitation projects in Montana downtowns, particularly Billings, which have contributed considerably to the overall revitalization of those communities.
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