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How Two Biotech Companies Won at Repurposing Historic Structures for Reuse

Aileron Therapeutics, a Cambridge, Mass.-based startup, and Novartis, one of the world’s largest pharmaceutical companies, have each recently repurposed older structures, creating unique and appealing headquarters buildings.

Chris Leary, AIA, LEED AP, Principal, KlingStubbins (Directory 2013)
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Aileron Therapeutics, a Cambridge, Mass.-based startup, 
sought a creative work environment, inspired by a romantic vision of a SoHo artist’s loft, that was the embodiment of their startup culture. After touring a series of uninspiring and unfulfilling conventional real estate options, they turned their eyes instead to an unlikely and nondescript warehouse in downtown Cambridge that essentially provided a blank palette. 
Aileron Therapeutics, a Cambridge, Mass.-based startup, sought a creative work environment, inspired by a romantic vision of a SoHo artist’s loft, that was the embodiment of their startup culture. After touring a series of uninspiring and unfulfilling conventional real estate options, they turned their eyes instead to an unlikely and nondescript warehouse in downtown Cambridge that essentially provided a blank palette.
Research Magic in a Candy Factory
Startups are not alone in taking the route of repurposing an old building. Swiss-based Novartis, one of the world’s largest pharmaceutical companies, was looking for an opportunity to develop a large facility in the densely developed Kendall Square area of Cambridge, Mass., to house its newly created Novartis Institutes for BioMedical Research (NIBR). With limited options to develop a large new building in densely developed downtown Cambridge, especially on an tight schedule, Novartis chose to repurpose the empty 500,000-square-foot New England Confectionery Co. (NECCO®) building into new office and laboratory space for more than 1,000 scientists. The KlingStubbins design team took the shell of a landmark building, added large doses of creativity and collaboration, and ended up with the formula for a new “Lab of the Year” winning renovation.

The revamped facility emphasizes open spaces and transparency to promote integration of scientific disciplines, social interaction, and energized innovation. The former factory’s loading dock marks the new entrance with inlaid stone that offers intuitive way-finding to the lobby, courtyard, and parking garage. Many of the laboratory spaces are open floor plans; private offices have a glass wall on at least one side; and at the main hallway junction on each floor is a circular, glass-enclosed conference room, now affectionately called a “bubble room.”
Daylight illuminates the six-story atrium at Novartis Institutes for Biomedical Research Kendall Square facility, with four glass elevators and a curved stairway facilitating the flow of foot traffic throughout the building.


Break areas on each floor are mini-kitchens with TVs and abundant seating. The Winter Garden, featuring varieties of plants for medicinal use, is the center point adjacent to the company store and a café, and offers a relaxing area for visitors and employees. The original power plant dedicated to the needs of the candy-making factory was converted into an amenities building complete with a state-of-the-art auditorium, full-service cafeteria, and conference spaces. The “beating heart” of this building is its six-story, amoeba-shaped atrium with daylight illumination from a 1,572-square-foot skylight. Four glass elevators and a curved stairway facilitate the flow of foot traffic to and from the extensions of this U-shaped building.

Repurposing Has Its Benefits
With so many companies downsizing, if not closing their doors, in the wake of this struggling global economy, finding an empty building in just about any location is easy. However, successfully converting an historic building to modern laboratory use requires overcoming many technical challenges, such as reinforcing the building structure to meet current seismic codes, improving the building envelope to meet current expectations for energy efficiency, and inserting new mechanical, electrical, and plumbing systems. Yet, there are many good reasons to make this investment.

First, consider the economic benefits. An older building will typically earn lower rents, while renovations will result in a new higher-value use and thus higher rents. In addition, a renovation can, depending on the condition of the building and the extent of the upgrades required, save considerable cost compared to new construction. In some cases, grants and tax benefits make renovation even more attractive.

The financial benefits of repurposing are not limited solely to direct construction material cost savings. Repurposing an existing building can save cost by greatly accelerating a project schedule, both by avoiding the time necessary to erect a new structure and, sometimes even more significantly, by reducing the time necessary for permitting a demolition and new building construction. In some cases, a new building could not be built today at the size and configuration of an historical structure built prior to currently more restrictive zoning.

Next, consider the benefits to the environment. Repurposing a structurally sound building eliminates the need to demolish it, which in turn alleviates the energy, waste, pollution, and landfill waste created by demolition and new construction. In addition, a renovation will greatly improve the energy performance of the building. Not only is reuse practical, but it also helps a development team to earn several points in the LEED® Green Building Rating System™.

Finally, the examples in this article also demonstrate the unique aesthetic character value that results from renovating an historic structure. Although this benefit is difficult to quantify, many successful cutting-edge companies desire something unique in their building spaces, something uniquely provided by creatively adapting an historic building .
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