San Antonio, Texas
Like any living organism, a building can be understood to have a finite lifespan. Years of neglect and poor management can shorten the life of a building just as it can shorten the life person. One Eleven Dot could certainly be described as having lived a hard life. Following the model of many midsize complexes built in the 1960s, this design featured 59 units concentrated in 10 closely spaced two-story buildings arranged to form a long linear courtyard. These buildings were connected by stacked walkways that were pushed up against the buildings on the courtyard side. While this circulation diagram reduced the number of stairs required for the complex, like a cheap motel there was no provision for privacy between the public walkways and the windows that otherwise would have enjoyed a view of the courtyard. This configuration also bore an unfortunate resemblance to a prison ward. This and other design flaws prevented the complex from living up to its full potential and in the forty years that followed it fell into a state of disrepair. By 2008 several units had burned and years of deferred maintenance and vandalism had taken its toll. The property was eventually auctioned off on the courthouse steps.
The Mañana Acquisition Corporation ultimately purchased the two-acre site. The property’s value was initially seen in the land alone but before moving forward with demolition the owner approached Urbanist Design to look at the feasibility of renovating the structure as opposed to simply bulldozing the complex and building a new one. Working with the client the architect identified the shortcomings of the original plan and developed a series of targeted architectural interventions that would both modernize the facilities while making the apartment units more viable for today’s rental market. It was ultimately determined that transforming the project through an intelligent renovation was both the more feasible and more sustainable approach.
While little work was required on the basic structure of the complex, the interior layout of the units was substantially reconsidered. The four original floor plan types were neither generous nor particularly well-conceived but a breakthrough occurred when the owner suggested cutting a number of two story units out of the existing buildings. By making a limited number of modifications to the existing partitions, Urbanist Design was able to implement this strategy and in the process created five new plan types, two of which were the airy two-story town home-style units originally suggested by the owner. All units became one or two bedroom plans, with several “bonus” studio/office spaces created by the elimination of the less-than-desirable “studio efficiency” units in the original design. This reduced the overall number of rental units but increased their individual quality and marketability. Through a limited number of precisely targeted renovations, Class C apartments have been repositioned to compete with Class A apartments with size and amenities not offered anywhere else in the area.
One of the most underutilized aspects of the original design was understood to be the courtyard. It was critical to making the most of this exterior room that now features several mature-growth oak trees clustered at either end. The key to utilizing this existing asset was rethinking the public circulation so windows could be left open without sacrificing privacy. Urbanist Design collaborated again with the owner to develop a strategy that removed the stacked walkways with the lower level circulation pushed toward the center of the courtyard and a series of new stairs accessing individual unit clusters. In addition to reducing the motel-like quality of the original design, this move also helped the complex read as a collection of smaller town homes as opposed to one large complex. The architect developed a simple architectural vocabulary of wood slats and steel stairs that reused existing components whenever possible. Portions of the existing cantilevered exit way were maintained to create new private balconies. Material choices were minimized to simplify execution, future maintenance and up-front costs. The existing brick façade was repaired where necessary and stucco elements were added to accent the new two-story town home units. By building off the existing mid-century design elements, Urbanist Design was able to create a new identity for the project that was both clean and new while remaining respectful of the old.
More importantly, the owner and architect of the 111 Dot Apartments were together able to extend the life of a solidly built complex for a fraction of cost of new construction. With similar complexes existing throughout San Antonio and the nation, this project represents a case study in how a close collaboration between an architect and a developer can reduce waste and create quality and value through adaptive use and sustainable practices.