The front elevation at Voke Lofts evokes the building's scholastic past with stone and red brick elements that echo the original.
Warren Jagger Voke Lofts honors its past with the structure's original, 1909 name, "Worcester Boys Trade School," carved in stone above the building's entry.

The Worcester Vocational Technical High School in downtown Worcester had an impressive pedigree. When it opened in 1909 as the Worcester Boys Trade School, it was among the earliest successful trade schools in the country, with 52 students learning 10 skills, from machinery and carpentry to printing, electrical work, and drafting.

Before its transformation into a mixed-income development, Voke Lofts in Worcester, Mass., served as a trade school.
Chris Chiappa Before: The building housing Voke Lofts was once the Worcester Vocational Technical High School, which opened in 1909 as the Worcester Boys’ Trade School. 

The red brick building was added onto through the years, gaining wings to form a "U" and more stories for classrooms, as well as a gymnasium. Yet, even with 116,000 square feet, the school needed more space for its larger student body and expanded curriculum. So, it constructed a new campus after the class of 2006 graduated. The original building sat vacant, but not for long. The gentrification that had begun in Worcester, now New England’s second-largest city, with 182,000 residents, picked up shortly after the 2008 recession ended. When executives from WinnDevelopment, a subsidiary of WinnCompanies, a Boston-based firm, saw the building in 2008, they found many reasons it appealed to them for rental housing:

  • Its good location at 34 Grove St., near a cluster of other stately, historic properties; its proximity to Interstate 290; and its designation as part of the Gateway Park district, an urban renewal project, which Worcester Polytechnic Institute and Worcester Business Development Corp. (WBDC) initiated to transform a 12-acre brownfield into a research center;
  • A need for affordable downtown residences for a growing cohort of young professionals and off-campus housing for 36,000 students at the city’s nine colleges and universities;
  • Improved public transportation throughout downtown, as well as to out-of-town cities like Boston, 35 miles away; and
  • The building’s sound infrastructure, which made the structure easier to convert than if it had been a factory in need of remediation. 

Because the building hadn’t been empty for long, its exterior and interior were in relatively sound condition, says architect Scott Maenpaa of The Architectural Team from Chelsea, Mass., which collaborates on many Winn adaptive-reuse projects.

“The roof was intact, so water hadn’t damaged the interior, though time had taken a toll on some interior plaster,” Maenpaa says. The interior also had huge arched windows, 12- to 14-foot-high ceilings, original wood decking, exposed brick walls, and some wide corridors. 

A hallway at Voke in its days as a technical high school.
Courtesy WinnDevelopment Before: A hallway at Worcester Vocational Technical High School, before the building's renovation as Voke Lofts. 

Winn gained site control in 2008 but didn’t make its $1.7 million purchase from WBDC until March 2013, when city, state, and federal funding sources were available, says Elizabeth Fish, vice president. Its plan was to convert the building into 84 units ranging from one- to three-bedrooms—some duplexes—and evenly divide them between market-rate and affordable units. Winn renamed the building Voke Lofts, a nod to its original, abbreviated moniker. 

To make the building function for residential life, the gym at the front was removed for a landscaped courtyard and surface parking. Landscape architect Andrew Leonard of A.T. Leonard & Associates in Ashby, Mass., looked at old photos to decide where to plant drought-tolerant, native species. He also selected lighting fixtures, recycled benches, and recycled I-beams found during construction to support signage.

The architects tuckpointed exterior brick and replaced windows for energy efficiency while maintaining original integrity. “We wanted faithful re-creations,” says real-estate salesman Timothy McCann, a member of the Worcester Historical Commission, which required Winn to do mock-ups and trial installations to ensure results.

Within the structure, the developer and architect kept as much exposed brick as possible, but the team replaced floorboards that would have made too much noise. Interior designer Robin Alger of Ideal Design in Branford, Mass., replaced them with a synthetic sustainable wood comprised of mostly recycled content that dampens sound. She also picked the palette, furnishings, and artwork to balance modern versus old. Examples: artist Maria Verrier’s photos of original building details; a small art gallery that displays original building artifacts; “The Think Tank” computer lab (pictured below), furnished with old, schoolhouse-style chairs, lights, and chalkboards.

The computer lab at Voke Lofts pays homage to the building's earlier incarnation as a vocational school—right down to the schoolhouse chairs.
Courtesy WinnDevelopment The computer lab at Voke Lofts pays homage to the building's earlier incarnation as a vocational school—right down to the schoolhouse chairs.

Winn uses focus groups to know which amenities appeal most to different demographics. In this case, a side lot was redesigned for outdoor living and children’s play, and space was converted for bike storage, a fitness room, and a loft-style lounge with kitchen, dining, and sitting areas. 

Completed in June 2014 for a total construction cost of $20.7 million, all units were leased by last September. Affordable apartments were assigned by a lottery, going to those with incomes between 30% and 60% of the area’s $79,000 median income. Affordable rents starts at $425 for a one-bedroom apartment to $1,234 for a three-bedroom. Market-rate rents range from $1,260 for the smallest, 588-square-foot, one-bedroom apartment to $2,222 for the largest, 1,826-square-foot, two-bedroom unit.

Synthetic wood flooring replaces the original floorboards at Voke Lofts. The sustainably made product contains mostly recycled material.
Courtesy WinnDevelopment A living room at Voke Lofts. The floorboards are made of a synthetic sustainable wood made mostly of recycled, sound-dampening content.

The transformation has also helped spur area development, says architect Andrew Shveda, another member of the historic commission. Winn is considering redeveloping the 1928 Worcester Boys’ Club across the street, and another developer recently reached agreement with the city to buy the old district courthouse.

Voke Lofts has also helped reverse the city’s brain drain. “By having more housing, we’re keeping more students after they graduate,” says McCann. And talk has started about adding a high-speed commuter rail between Worcester and Boston, which could bring still more young professionals to the area as it becomes a bigger incubator for the biotech field, says Michael E. Traynor, Worcester’s chief development officer.

Others are noticing WinnDevelopment's success as well: Preservation Massachusetts recently gave its 2015 Tsongas development award to Gilbert Winn, company CEO. 

Lessons Learned

All development projects offer lessons for those willing to listen and look. The Voke Lofts team learned five in particular:

1. Stay In sync. "This type of project is inherently complex and requires close collaboration, from design to construction and financing, since each step affects another," says Elizabeth Fish, vice president of WinnDevelopment. "To meet our energy-efficiency goals, the architect, engineers, contractors, and subcontractors needed to stay in sync from predevelopment through completion."

2. Expect the unexpected. "It can be a challenge to anticipate every cost associated with a large development on a large site," says Fish. "Expect the unexpected. In this project, we made an adjustment later in the time line about one type of window we needed to maintain the historic look without sacrificing energy conservation." 

3. Be patient. Adaptive reuse takes patience: In this case, more than five years passed from when Winn took control of the site to when the development was ready for occupancy. "Securing all the funding sources and completing the preconstruction design represented key milestones. We couldn't start construction without them," Fish says.

4. If you want LEED certification, be thorough in your approach. Many decisions are involved in making a building LEED certifiable. Among those the Voke Lofts team made were adapting an existing structure, reducing building material waste, sourcing construction materials locally, insulating the roof with a high R-value, and installing occupancy sensors on common-area lighting.

5. Consider public funding when appropriate. Public funding can close financing gaps. "The city provided Community Development Block Grants from the federal government, which helped residents from all sorts of professions find housing at Voke," says Michael E. Traynor, Worcester's chief development officer. The end result: a richer environment in which to live.