Bakery Square in Pittsburgh, PA is having a sweet second act. Thanks to a preservation-minded redesign by firm Strada LLC, this former Nabisco factory has traded baked cookies for browser cookies and become the LEED-certified home for several technology tenants, including Google's regional office.
We chatted with John Martine, founding principal and lead design partner at Strada (not to mention a preservationist), about striking the balance between preserving a building's heritage and adapting it for modern use.
The exterior of Bakery Square as it appears today.
Tell me about Bakery Square’s history. What was the building’s former function?
It was built in 1917-1918 as a bakery factory for National Biscuit Company, later known as Nabisco. Crackers and cookies were made at this particular Nabisco plant until it closed in 1998. The building was then purchased by the Atlantic Baking Company in 2001, which continued to operate it as a bakery until 2004. The smell of baking cookies was a sweetly memorable landmark in the East End neighborhoods surrounding the factory for many years.
What is it now?
The building is now the major office building and anchor of a mixed-use complex of offices, retail, hotel and a parking garage known as Bakery Square.
What was your role in transforming Bakery Square into the office and retail hub that it is today?
Strada's primary role has been to transform most of the Nabisco building into office space for a variety of technology companies. Initially, Strada was commissioned by Google to design the two uppermost floors, six and seven (which is partially a mezzanine), into offices for their growing Pittsburgh staff. This effort was quickly followed by Phase 2, with additional designs for Google’s expansion on the fifth floor.
In addition, we are completing interior architecture for other technology tenants including University of Pittsburgh Medical Center’s Technology Development Center and Carnegie Mellon University’s Software Engineering Institute. The building is now 100% leased by technology companies.
The 6th floor of the Nabisco Building before construction.
What were the benefits (and drawbacks) to adapting the cookie factory into spaces for technology companies?
There were many benefits in adapting this factory space for contemporary office use. Users like Google are drawn to the open floor plans, natural light and materials, and aged character of historic structures -- they fell in love with the scratched and worn wood floors that show the patina of 90 years of industrial use.
There is abundant natural light because of the expansive fenestration already in place, which helped to achieve LEED for Interiors Gold certification. And unusually generous floor to ceiling heights allow for a greater feeling of openness and provide ample space for the necessary mechanical systems so they didn’t become a visual distraction. In summary, there were far greater benefits than drawbacks.
The same view of the 6th floor after completion. In the foreground is a cluster of workstations with steel and brick conference towers beyond.
What were the challenges you faced in preserving some of the building’s original features while making the space tech-friendly for its new tenants? How did you overcome any of these challenges?
For the most part, we stripped the building's interior spaces bare of equipment, exposing the bones of the industrial floor plates and the structure. The design team devised a strategy that took full advantage of the existing post-industrial space with its high ceilings, amazing natural light, and quirky features.
The existing 60’ wide x 200’ long x 30’ high open space, with its trussed ceiling, lent itself well to forming the foundation of a one-of-a-kind “wow” factor. The team placed several large architectural elements within the vast space to enhance the visual and spatial experience of it. Elements included a curved lecture hall with viewing gallery, several one- and two-story conference towers, a giant cargo net hammock, and a bamboo forest with 10’-high cascading water walls.
This open-circle seating area on the 5th floor, known as the Think Pit, provides an ideal space for collaboration or relaxation.
However, salvaging all of these elements created obvious challenges -- for example, auspending a 20’ x 20’ cargo net hammock from an existing concrete truss spanning 60’, and reinforcing 5’-deep beams to support an exterior roof deck.
What will the building’s rebirth mean for the neighborhood and the city today?
The project has been a huge success for the developer with the attraction of immensely desirable tenants like Google, and the building is now fully leased. Bakery Square has also become an important anchor in the revitalization of the East Liberty section of the city that was historically the second largest commercial center in Pittsburgh, but suffered badly from the effects of urban renewal in the 1960’s. It -- and other projects like it throughout the city -- are a testament to the enduring economic, aesthetic, and social value of historic structures.
The flooring material of this 5th floor cafe is made using scraps left over from the furniture industry.
What’s the next chapter in Bakery Square’s story? Has it inspired other preservation or development stories nearby?
As luck would have it, a major development site has come available directly across the street from the Nabisco building in the form of a decommissioned middle school built in the 1970s. The developer of Bakery Square is in the process of acquiring this 13-acre site for the next phase of development, Bakery Square 2.0. Although this will be new construction, it will expand the mixed-use character of Bakery Square by adding residences, as well as new office buildings, to the project. Strada is the master planner and urban designer for this next phase.
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Julia Rocchi is the director of digital content at the National Trust. By day she wrangles content; by night (and weekends), she shops local, travels to story-rich places, and walks around looking up at buildings.