Facade restoration paired with structural and systems upgrades can help transform outdated storefronts into more visually appealing spaces.
Chicago is home to an endless array of historic facades. From limestone steps to charming masonry archways to intricately carved stonework, the city has no shortage of eye-catching monuments to the past. Like any vintage item, these facades require maintenance to survive and look their best.
Building owners can increase property value and revitalize their business by investing in renovating and restoring storefronts. A significant bonus to maintaining and restoring facades rather than demolishing or replacing them is that not only is construction waste diverted from the landfill, but the sense of place exuded by the design trends of the original construction help preserve unique character and individuality in the neighborhood.
FACADE RESTORATION: BRINGING BUILDINGS INTO THE 21ST CENTURY
If the eyes are the window to the soul, then a facade performs a similar role for a building’s look and feel. Whether the exterior is more rustic or stately, visually weighty or lighter-than-air, traditional or modern, the facade creates the first impression for every onlooker and entrant—particularly critical for business owners. As part of the building envelope, the facade also significantly impacts the structure’s energy efficiency. Restoring exterior details like lintels, parapets, cornices, and tiles combined with upgrading HVAC, insulation, and glazing can balance aesthetics with structural integrity.
To illustrate the facade renovation design process, we’ll talk about three completed projects | A mixed-use building on Chicago Avenue, Dollop Coffee in Ravenswood, and Logan Certified, the moss design studio.
SITE ASSESSMENT TO DETERMINE DESIGN DIRECTION
Before designing anything, we conduct a walk-through of the property to assess the building’s condition and surrounding environment. We then determine what is salvageable, what needs restoring, and what needs replacing. Next, we survey existing systems, masonry, glazing, windows, and architectural details for structural integrity and functionality. As part of our sustainable ethos, our goal is to preserve as much as possible, as long as it’s feasible and doesn’t detract from the project’s energy and resource efficiency.
Once the analysis is complete, we design a program based on our findings and our client’s goals. During the schematic design phase, we create several concept sketches that incorporate modern upgrades with renovations and replacements.
Pictured above and below is our Chicago Avenue project. Acting as realtors, we helped our clients find the perfect mixed-use building. The clients were looking for a “fixer-upper” that could be transformed into an apartment with commercial space below. As their architect and GC, we completely restored the facade and renovated the interior.
STRUCTURAL AND SYSTEMS REPAIRS
After reviewing the schematic design options with our clients, we proceed with the renovation. At our Chicago Avenue residential project in West Town, we removed the existing roofing material (which concealed some significant structural damage) and replaced it with a reinforced steel lintel. We outfitted the storefront with a US Aluminum system, a high-performance thermal material that is very energy efficient. We upgraded the storefront windows with a double-glazed system and included operable windows for natural ventilation, and we also upgraded the entry door. For the apartment above, we installed modern grid windows, which are operable windows with decorative aluminum mullions, creating an eye-catching grid look.
We installed brand-new plumbing beneath the surface with a fresh concrete slab on top in the commercial space. In addition, a hyper-efficient electric service was tapped to connect with future solar panels, increasing energy efficiency and reducing operational costs.
For the second-floor remodel and rear addition for the apartment above, accessible entryways were built, allowing for loading and foot traffic during construction. In addition, the steel lintel above the existing windows needed to be replaced—it was bowing and wouldn’t have been able to support the new, oversized storefront glazing.
By coordinating with the local special service area (SSA), we secured funding for some of the renovations to preserve the neighborhood’s aesthetic. The restoration, tuckpointing, and a colorful, cheerful mural made the building more marketable. Our clients are excited about the transformation and pleased that they were able to lease the commercial space within just two months.
Serving the role of Architect as Developer for our home base at Logan Certified, we renovated an abandoned grocery store into a modern live/work compound featuring our architecture studio with an interior courtyard, a commercial storefront, and a residential rental unit on the second floor.
We relocated the front entrance to the north side of the studio, nixing the previous corner entry, and added an overhead door to illuminate and ventilate the space. An abundance of new glazing was installed throughout the commercial section of the building as well, casting light deep into all corners of the interior.
MASONRY + FACADE RENOVATIONS
At Logan Certified, the west-street-facing wall was constructed of Chicago Common brick, fired and sourced from local clay here in Chicago. With excellent thermal mass properties and a cool, vintage look, we try to reuse bricks whenever we find them on a site. Plus, the aesthetic possibilities are endless: the bricks can be painted, stained, or left as is to fit any design concept or theme. During the demo and construction, we salvaged and restored as much of the Chicago Common brick as possible and have continued to maintain it since the project was completed in 2017.
Painting can protect the brick from the elements by sealing it off, but the pigment can become absorbed into the brick’s porous surface over time. So be prepared to re-paint every 3-5 years and tuckpoint along the way. Generally, staining brick is a better option because it allows moisture to evaporate through the more breathable coating. However, there is one caveat: the brick must be in good shape beforehand since stain application can take several coats and reveal inconsistencies in the brick’s surface.
At Dollop Coffee Co. on Montrose Avenue, we wanted to build a pickup window, which meant keeping the large exhaust pipe on the exterior. We ditched the old windows and front door to make room for more glazing.
Sometimes a more intense overhaul is needed. We took the existing masonry at the Chicago Avenue building and removed the face brick to fix structural issues and the parapet. Next, we expanded the store window openings for increased daylighting. Original brickwork patterns were retained where possible and reconstructed elsewhere, preserving the character of the vintage storefront.
For Logan Certified’s facade, we removed sheet metal paneling on the north and west side that wrapped around the corner and painted the cinderblocks a uniform black. We scraped through layers of putty to uncover and restore attractive brickwork from the west side residence.
Parapets are a section of the wall that extends above the roof line. They are usually decorative and made of terra cotta or other fire and weather-resistant materials. Unfortunately, exposure to the elements tends to break down materials structurally over time, affecting the overall roof integrity. As discovered in the property assessment at Logan Certified, we needed to do some tuckpointing and waterproofing on the parapets, which were not structurally sound. Making these repairs restored the building’s structural integrity while preserving its natural beauty.
Front doorways can integrate with additional facade glazing to pull sunlight deep into a space. At Dollop Cafe on Montrose in Ravenswood, we integrated accessibility concerns into the overall design, bringing the outdated structure up to the current Chicago Building Code along the way.
There are two basic types of windows; aluminum frame with glass (typically referred to as “Storefront”) windows, which you might see on the ground floor of a commercial building or a residential or commercial highrise, or wood-clad, which is a wood frame clad with aluminum on the exterior and exposed wood on the interior. The latter is more common in smaller buildings and single-family homes. Wood-clad can also include fiberglass, which is less expensive and is becoming more common.
On the west-facing commercial and residential sides of Logan Certified, we installed new sustainable low E-3 windows to manage the strong afternoon sunlight. Energy-efficient windows with high R values — and sometimes glass rooftops like at CoLaboratory — provide warmth to the workspace during the wintertime while keeping the aesthetic vibe light and bright.
We look for windows that the windows are “thermally broken,” meaning there is no conductive path for extreme temperatures to transfer from outside to inside, and the U-factor, which measures the amount of thermal energy that is allowed to pass through the glass. There is also typically a coating that is applied to the glass to increase efficiency. The terminology varies by manufacturer but could be labeled as “Low-E3” on a Marvin product, for example. The location of the building matters most here, as the U-factor will equalize with the climate zone to prevent condensation.
Beyond the environmental concerns, there are many variations in frame thickness, color, muntins (vertical dividers of glass) in relation to the frame (more common in a storefront system), additional glazing (three glass panes versus dual glazed), and method of operation.
Restoring the facades of historic storefronts can require a lot of bespoke decisions because the project is anything but cookie-cutter — n fact, it is the only one of its kind! Whether it’s brick maintenance or integrating new materials to support a delicate but aging exterior structurally, the investment is worth it to preserve personality and historic charm and make a lasting impression on whoever walks through its doors. Contact us to discuss facade maintenance, repair, or restoration on your storefront.
Stay tuned to our blog for more info on future projects and how we’re preserving Chicago history, one brick at a time!
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