Adaptive reuse projects present plenty of challenges for real estate developers, but when the right project comes along, the rewards have the potential to be more than worthwhile in terms of profitability and tenant engagement.
In 2018, the University of Pittsburgh partnered with Wexford Science & Technology, LLC, a national real estate developer that focuses on projects for universities, academic medical centers and research companies, to transform a former Ford Model T assembly plant into The Assembly, a new home for research related to cancer and other biomedical fields.
Built in 1915 by the Ford Motor Company, the historic assembly plant in Pittsburgh’s Bloomfield neighborhood was designed by famed architect John Graham. The building was originally a one-stop shop for the iconic Ford Model T, which went from assembly line to showroom floor within the eight-story building. The facility’s manufacturing operations closed in 1932, but it continued to serve as a Ford dealership until 1953. For the next few decades, the building hosted a variety of uses. In 2018, the University of Pittsburgh bought it from the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.
With the support of the Pennsylvania State Historic Preservation Office, the shuttered Ford building was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2018. Wexford then teamed up with Ventas, Inc., Bank of America, ZGF Architects and Turner Construction to complete the facility’s transformation.
Historic tax credits were used on the project, which made the restoration of significant historic features such as the crane shed financially feasible. (Bank of America served as the historic tax credit investor.)
In 2018, Turner began its work by uncovering the past — formerly transparent window blocks covered in years of dust and grime; floors filled with rubble; retired railroad tracks sitting silent — and began restoring the historic building. Since the building is on the National Register of Historic Places, Wexford wanted to ensure the crane shed was restored, not torn down and rebuilt, although the second option would have been more cost effective. Due to its age and the fact that it had stood abandoned for many years, the exterior of the building was in poor condition both structurally and cosmetically, which increased the anticipated redevelopment costs.
Additionally, there are two very large storm sewer culverts deep below the lowest elevation of the crane shed. This required a very specific and expensive below-grade structural system to support the future intended use.
The Assembly’s name pays homage to the building’s history and legacy. The new facility totals 355,000 square feet and features three building components: the 245,000-square-foot historic industrial plant; a new addition that has 110,000 square feet of laboratory, R&D and office space; and an in-building 325-car parking facility. In November 2021, Turner Construction completed the first phase of the $330 million project, which included the renovation of the core and shell of the historic industrial plant — the focal point of the project.
Many of the old factory’s features —large floor plates, generous slab-to-slab floor heights, exposed steel beams and an industrial architectural style — are also ideal for modern laboratories.
Wexford and its team were able to restore and showcase the significant historic features, such as the crane shed and Model T showroom, to enrich the space for tenants and the community. In addition to the physical space, building artifacts were discovered, including an old steering wheel, sales receipts, time clocks and furniture. Wexford intends to preserve these historic items.
ZGF created a “main street” concept that joins the existing building and new addition while providing circulation to all major programmatic elements. A landscaped terrace between the plant and the new tower connects the structures but visually demarcates between the old and the new. Located adjacent to the brick plant, the new laboratory tower and parking facility are clad in precast terracotta to complement the old brick façade’s industrial character while remaining architecturally distinct.
To service the building’s tenants and community members and to attract top talent, The Assembly features an extensive list of amenities including a restaurant and café; a secured bicycle room and shower facilities; conference rooms; a 250-seat auditorium; and event and gathering spaces. The iconic gathering space features the plant’s five-story crane shed — a distinct architectural element that was used to hoist parts unloaded from the adjacent Pennsylvania Railroad tracks to the appropriate level for assembly. It has been restored and transformed into an atrium where researchers, entrepreneurs, thought leaders, artists and the community can connect. The former five-story assembly crane shed features restored exterior glass and distinctive enclosed platforms that create “pop-out pod” meeting spaces on the upper floors and a dramatic atrium space that functions as the centerpiece of the project, with flexible seating and formal conference facilities.
“As with any project over a hundred years old, there were challenges in the building’s existing conditions and a team effort to restore this piece of Pittsburgh’s history,” said Will Masters, The Assembly’s project manager from Turner Construction.
One year into construction, the emergence of COVID-19 posed significant challenges for the project. The site was idled for two weeks in accordance with the state’s mandated shutdown until the development team received an exemption to restart construction. Remarkably, only four weeks were lost from the construction schedule due to COVID. Wexford received an exemption from Pennsylvania’s mandated shutdown since The Assembly is considered a health care facility.
In addition to social distancing and managing personal protective equipment, supply chain shortages also affected the development of The Assembly. Turner used SourceBlue, the company’s supply chain service provider, to prefabricate the mechanical penthouse in North Carolina. The 34 modular pieces, which averaged 14 feet by 48 feet, traveled to Pittsburgh via truck for installation. This helped to significantly reduce the project’s timeline. It is estimated that the prefabricated mechanical penthouse saved six months on the project’s ultimate delivery date.
This spring, The Assembly will welcome the first wave of the anticipated 500 researchers and support staff. In addition to the laboratories for University of Pittsburgh cancer researchers, the facility will feature build-to-suit leasable laboratory and office space for industry partners and startups focused on life sciences and technology.
Over a century ago, the Ford plant epitomized American innovation and led to the connection of rural America to urban America. Today, the adaptive reuse of this historic building has transformed it into a center of biomedical research that will provide an attractive, engaging space for employees and the community. The Assembly demonstrates how yesterday’s industrial architecture can be revitalized for tomorrow’s economy.
Sami Proctor is senior director of marketing at Wexford Science & Technology.