Midcentury facilities designed for once-humming industries are finding new leases on life through adaptive reuse, as architects reanimate these aging relics into tech offices, loft-style residences, and even art institutions. In San Francisco, the Pinterest headquarters is a striking example of the potential for modernizing a former factory in a post-industrial age. Designed by the team of IwamotoScott Architecture with Brereton Architects, the Pinterest HQ revitalizes a former John Deere factory in the city’s South of Market district—which itself has seen transitions from Gold Rush boomtown to today’s tech hub, and also boasts adaptive reuse offices for companies such as Twitter and LinkedIn.

Pinterest’s mission of connecting people through shared interests is evident in the renovated four-story factory building, whose main feature is a central staircase that ‘knits’ its floors together; knitting is company parlance for the cross-pollination of disciplines that spurs creativity. An atrium in the former factory was expanded through to the ground floor, turning the stairs into a light well that illuminates the once-gloomy first level. For a company that trades in the aesthetic of DIY craft, the architects created a plywood diagrid ceiling in the ground-level lobby to welcome visitors. Matching custom plywood furnishings and plywood-clad conference pods extend the warm, casual feel of the office within to flesh out the factory’s bones with offices that are distinctly Pinterest.

Just a few blocks down the street from Pinterest sits the headquarters of Airbnb, the tech company that connects homeowners with visitors who need to rent a home. Airbnb occupies another former factory that has been converted into tech offices by Gensler, with a subsequent expansion by WRNS Studio. A towering lobby atrium showcases the company’s buzzing activity through windows that offer glimpses of open offices and conference rooms designed to mimic some of Airbnb’s most popular online rental listings. The renovated offices are anticipating LEED Gold certification, in no small part due to the building’s adaptive reuse; by avoiding demolition of the existing structure, the architects reduce the amount of waste generated by the project. In many cases adaptive reuse is also a more time-efficient process than demolition and reconstruction, both in terms of the physical construction and the permitting processes involved.

Outside of San Francisco, the adaptive reuse trend continues in other areas of development. In North Adams, Massachusetts, a former textile printing plant of more than 25 buildings has become a cultural center and home of the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (MassMoCA). Following a master plan by Simeon Bruner of Bruner/Cott & Associates, David Childs of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, Frank Gehry, and Robert Venturi, MassMoCA opened its first phase in 1999 and celebrates the completion of its third phase this year. In Washington, DC, several former warehouses have been converted into coworking spaces for WeWork, and the Art Deco Hecht warehouse stacks luxury lofts atop a NikeTown.

As cities embrace their urban fabric, local CEOs and decision-makers are recognizing that hiring an architect to renovate obsolete structures retains more valuable character than generic new construction could hope to create.

About the author: Deane Madsen, Assoc. AIA, is a writer and architectural photographer based in Washington, DC. He is the founder of Brutalist DC and the former associate editor of design for Architect Magazine.

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