500 Chicon, with its exposed brick, soaring roof beams, and center atrium, is already beautiful. But the things that we love most about the building are also the things that cause challenges when attempting a renovation. In order to improve its functionality, changes to the HVAC system and acoustics needed to be made. The exposed brick walls lend character, but they lack insulation completely. The open nature of the space allows light to reach deeper into the basement, but it also allows sound to travel without impediment. This became the most pressing question when undertaking an update: How do we preserve the things we love about the original building and the 2002 renovation while making the space more functional?
The answer to that question has proven to be to change as little as possible, taking advantage of functional solutions that work with the existing architecture. The un-insulated brick walls will remain as they are, but the thermal performance of the space will be improved by the addition of storm windows and insulation on the roof. The inclusion of a sunscreen canopy on the south facade will shield the building from the strongest rays of the sun, protecting the building’s large original windows from excessive heat loading.
The only major design change occurring involves the addition of flying soffit panels, which will provide “acoustical closure in the least intrusive way possible,” says Earl Swisher, AIA, founding principal of Lawrence Group’s Austin office, the firm in charge of the renovation. The flying soffits will allow the cathedral ceiling to remain open while providing privacy where it is needed.
Swisher bears in mind a sense of the different eras of the building as he draws it into its next phase. “I love the volume and the materials and how they speak of a time, of an industrial function, of the permanence of the building. I think when one walks through the building they can feel time — another time when maybe Austin was a bit more simple, a bit more industrial in that area of town. We architects love to preserve that. I think we’ve done that while trying to be respectful of the prior architects who renovated the building.”
Some of the elements that seems original to the building are actually changes from previous renovations. Since 500 Chicon started its life as an oil warehouse for the Gulf Refining Company in the 1920s, many of what are now windows were doors, meant to allow ease of loading in barrels of oil. Instead of stairs, there were ramps down to the basement, which served as more storage.
After the building ceased to be used as a warehouse, it lay fallow for several years. At one point in the 1990s, developers considered turning it into a shared office space for multiple tech companies, much like the co-working spaces and incubators that dot downtown today. When that idea fell through, fd2s stepped in, renovating the building with architects Stern and Bucek and bringing it to its current use as an office.
Working in a building with features from every era is a privilege and a reminder of the constantly evolving nature of Austin. As our tentative date to move upstairs and out of the basement looms, look forward to updates about our joy at seeing windows and daylight again, and our newly rearranged work stations.