Ideas about architecture, design and the use of space have changed over the years. Back in the first half of the last century when both developers and consumers had different needs and agendas than they do today (not to mention less advanced technology), giant boilers, elevator machinery, fuel storage tanks, and other mechanical systems were housed in building basements and sub-basements. Today, many of these systems have been replaced by smaller, streamlined components and computerized controls that require far less space. Many buildings – prewar apartment buildings in particular – find themselves with unused and underused spaces that with a little work can be converted into valuable amenity spaces for their residents’ use.
The Technical Issues
“Depending on what the intended use is, the space might fall under certain regulations,” says David DeFilippo, an architect with Tsoi Kobus Design in Boston. “The concept of habitable space is always a problem.” Habitable space is defined as a space for living, sleeping, eating or cooking. As such, in virtually all jurisdictions there are requirements as to ventilation (windows, basically) and means of egress.
“If a space is not used for living,” continues DeFilippo, “it can be adapted to other uses. Sometimes these spaces are completely or partially underground. Windows are a requirement for habitable space. Otherwise, you can generally put anything else you want in these spaces. With some uses you may need two means of egress, and that depends on population size. By most codes, once you hit the magic number of 50, you generally need two means of egress, which can limit use.” What that means in real terms is that if a space’s permitted occupancy is in excess of 50 people, the space may require more adaptation than can be easily undertaken or paid for within a specific budget.
Ventilation is another major consideration in repurposing spaces, particularly in basements. “You have to exhaust the air,” says DeFilippo. “If you move into the building system, you might require a fan change or a small mechanical room that contains ventilation equipment. Some ‘H-’ and ‘U-’ plan buildings have air shafts that can be utilized for exhaust. You might even have some windows. In a basement, you might also be able to tap into the existing heating system by creating a separate circuit. Many times, split-type air conditioning units (condenser on one side of wall, evaporator on the other, neither necessarily outside) are used for these spaces. It’s a great way to provide ventilation for individual rooms. In general, regardless of whether there are windows, gyms always require artificial ventilation.”
What Are the Options?
“It’s something I’ve done many times,” says Susan Lauren, Principal of Lauren Interior Design in New York City, about repurposing existing spaces. “More and more older buildings are undertaking projects like this to compete with new construction. One of the easiest things to do is to take an apartment or an unused space, usually in the basement, and turn it into an amenity. I did a job at Renoir House [on the Upper East Side of Manhattan], where they took an unused apartment and turned it into a gym. It was so clever. It was simply a question of taking down a couple of walls, and we retained the bathroom. We got rid of the kitchen and brought in appropriate flooring and equipment. The flooring was designed to cut down on noise. It wasn’t difficult.”