The exterior of the Modera Sedici apartments in Washington, D.C., preserves that of the original building, the former Italian Embassy.
David Madison The exterior of the Modera Sedici apartments in Washington, D.C., preserves that of the original building, the former Italian Embassy.

Whether you’re developing a brand-new apartment community or reimagining an existing one, preparing it for today’s tech-savvy residents is a must. Instances exist, however, when the history of a building or location comes first.

When redeveloping a historic building where many of the original features must be preserved, the scope of the task is much different from building a new community from the ground up at an everyday site. You have to be extremely cognizant of the historical significance of the structure and the sensitivity of the surrounding community and jurisdiction. In reality, preservation requirements might prevent you from implementing some of the changes you have in mind, so you have to go in with a creative and flexible mind-set.

First and foremost, it’s about what elements are important to the historic preservation review board in that jurisdiction. You must work with them to determine what exterior and interior features should remain to preserve the history and character of the building and design around them.

At Mill Creek Residential, we recently had the privilege of redeveloping the former Italian Embassy building in Washington, D.C., into Modera Sedici, an apartment community that will open this fall. We restored the existing Embassy building and converted it to 22 custom apartment homes. We also developed a brand-new, nine-story building alongside the original structure offering an additional 112 residences.

When redeveloping a historic community in a tech-driven world, there are a few best practices to keep in mind to ensure a successful outcome:

Treat Historic Features With TLC
In a historic preservation, the exterior structure typically has to be preserved, as well as many historic elements within the building. Preserving these features is difficult enough, but it’s particularly challenging when altering its intended use— such as changing a former embassy into an apartment community. When you’re demolishing ceilings and removing walls, debris can’t land on features like marble flooring, crown molding, or century-old millwork!

Count on the city’s historical board to be heavily involved in the redesign of the building. They’ll carefully monitor the blueprint and have plenty of touch points. Their presence and feedback should be embraced, because the historical board knows the original structure better than anyone else and will ensure that the redevelopment tastefully reflects the original. At Modera Sedici, for example, the lobby, staircase, ballroom, and library were required to be preserved, meaning we couldn’t convert them into residences.

The city will also closely monitor any additional structures added to the development. While a modern touch isn’t prohibited, most jurisdictions will require that any new structures complement the original building.

After the high-level initiatives are handled, some of the more practical concerns must be considered, including waterproofing, structural integrity, and integration with the foundation system.

A unit interior at the Modera Sedici apartments, opening this fall.
David Madison A unit interior at the Modera Sedici apartments, opening this fall.

Blend in Technology
Implementing tech at a historic site can actually be simpler than doing a routine value-add installation at a community built in the 1980s. When taking a building down to its barebones structure, very few prohibitive factors exist for implementing low-voltage wiring. You’re unencumbered from a behind-the-walls perspective because you’re stripping them down, rather than a typical redeveloped community that requires conduits to be run through walls that are not demolished.

From a tech perspective, everything about modernizing a historic building requires foresight and the flexibility to make changes on the back end. From a construction perspective, it’s advisable to outfit the building with tech capabilities integrated into the amenity spaces and apartment homes, such as fiber networking lines and equipment that run through the walls. Taking care of these facets during the redevelopment is critical so you don’t have to tear into structural elements to install them later.

The primary challenge is ensuring the tech is thoughtful in the way it’s layered in throughout the historic spaces. Because it’s not new construction, the architecture should speak for itself. When visitors walk into a historic ballroom, they want to have a nostalgic experience that reminds them of the room’s storied past. The tech can be subtle in this instance, such as flat-screen televisions or other equipment with retractable cabinets.

The ergonomics of a historic building can be tricky and surpass any tech challenges. Challenges such as an asymmetrical layout can require creative thinking with regard to the customer path, ingress and egress of visitors and residents, and additional daily community activities. While little difference will be experienced from a tech-implementation standpoint at a historic building, your team might spend hundreds of hours trying to figure out the ergonomics of the space.

Be Flexible
In historic renovation, you’re not creating a box—the box has been created for you. The challenge then becomes how you operate within the constraints of that box. Some historic buildings are former warehouses that have a straight-up floor plan and 12-foot ceilings on every floor. That simplifies things.

The Italian Embassy building was never intended for apartment homes, so adapting it for modern use required an abundance of creativity and flexibility. With a historic building, you may not know what’s behind the walls until you demolish them. No matter how much you try to coordinate efforts, you’re likely to encounter unforeseen problems that will require continual adjustments.

Make sure your teams are aligned from the get-go, from a committed capital partner that understands restrictions to savvy architects who are creative enough to overcome challenges. Having a flexible general contractor and development team also helps streamline the process.

Use Your Own Construction Team
General contractors in our industry are generally accustomed to routine production-build developments, not custom-build endeavors like a historical redevelopment. If your development is closer to Swiss watchmaking than production build, possessing your own construction team is a huge benefit.

The ability to have your own construction team working directly with your development arm can be critical. While the industry is blessed with several fantastic third-party contractors, your own team will have heightened intuition if it’s been part of previous redevelopments and will typically be more patient with any last-minute changes.

Compared with new-build construction, a historic rehab contains more unknowns and moving pieces. Different risks are associated with it. Using your own construction team enhances the chances for a better product and increases the likelihood you’ll finish on time and on budget.

A 10-foot vintage glass door that opens into a historic courtyard can best a programmable thermostat, even in the minds of today’s mobile-centric resident.

Once completed, your redevelopment should beckon the glory days of the original building. The narrative, such as century-old stories associated with the building, often go farther than the actual elements.

While today’s renters are tech-focused and rightfully so, certain historic features can be more alluring. A 10-foot vintage glass door that opens into a historic courtyard can best a programmable thermostat, even in the minds of today’s mobile-centric residents.

If you can successfully blend history and tech, you have the ability to offer a truly unique living experience.