If your office building is in need of a redesign, it's important to consult with an architect to see if renovations make more sense than restarting from the ground up. Often times, you'll find it's cheaper and wiser to build upon what already works.
Such was the case for the American Enterprise Group’s headquarters building in Des Moines, Iowa, which was designed by Pritzker Architecture Prize winner Gordon Bunshaft, FAIA, of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill. Completed in 1965, the eight-story, 153,000-square-foot office building won an AIA Honor Award for Architecture in 1967; nearly five decades later, its sensitive renovation by BNIM has garnered a second AIA award for effectively updating systems while preserving the character of Bunshaft’s work.
Not every building, of course, has been designed by an architect of Bunshaft’s stature. In addition to the AEG headquarters, he was also responsible for some of the most iconic midcentury office buildings, from New York’s Lever House (with design coordinator Natalie de Blois) and Manufacturers Trust Company Building to the National Commercial Bank in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Bunshaft’s contributions to the realm of cultural institutions include Washington, DC’s Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, as well as the Beinecke Rare Book Library at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut.
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Despite award-winning architecture, the renovation BNIM faced was hardly simple: Part of Bunshaft’s minimalist construction was the integration of mechanical and plumbing systems into the walls of the AEG headquarters. Retrofitting these systems meant tearing into the walls, some of which were exquisitely detailed to the highest level of finish, then replacing what needed to be replaced and carefully restoring what had been demolished. Internal structure in the form of 90-foot precast concrete T beams afforded opportunities for BNIM to clear out wall partitions in favor of glass walls that take advantage of these long clear spans in an open office floor plan.
Midcentury buildings such as the AEG headquarters represent a large portion of existing leasable office space, and BNIM’s renewal is an inarguably better option than removal and reconstruction; in addition, the building was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2015. Bunshaft’s original design incorporated overhangs in its north and south façades and shade floor-to-ceiling glazing on those elevations while still admitting ample daylight; the system updates by BNIM brought about a two-thirds reduction in energy consumption, which will both improve performance and lower costs.
Recognizing a building’s good bones can mean the difference between a lengthy and expensive demolition and reconstruction project and a shorter, more efficient update that improves upon existing assets. As an added incentive, the various sustainability certifications—LEED, BREEAM, Living Building Challenge, and others—recognize the importance of renovations and adaptive reuse, and reward builders that find innovative ways to salvage what’s there. Your architect can work with you to identify your building’s assets, as well as areas for improvement within its existing structure. You might even find that you’ve been hiding a gem of a building beneath past-era remodels; with a bit of architectural reconstructive surgery, it can shine once again.
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.