May 16, 2018

Transforming a factory into a cultural hub: where to begin?

Transformation of industrial buildings into useful objects has been going on for decades in the world, but for Ukraine it’s still a new thing. Where should you start to turn an abandoned building into something interesting and necessary?

A few years ago I had the honor of visiting the Fabryka Sztyki Art Incubator in the lovely Polish city of Lodz. They converted 7,000 square meters of factory grounds into a hub for supporting creative industries. At the time of my visit, there were 28 people working there, and I was particularly impressed with a project on producing shaggy bags made of special eco-materials of all colors of the rainbow. Fabryka Sztyki is the place of choice in Lodz for conducting chamber concerts, performances and creative master classes. Our visit coincided with a workshop on chest decoration, and a concert of ethnic music was scheduled for the next day.

Later on I found myself in another interesting place, now in Germany. The creative quarter of Munich was hiding a whole new world behind a rather unimpressive façade, with German artists and documentalists working in decorated lofts and amateur troupes rehearsing in abandoned garages, as well as BMW planning to setup a startup incubator in a large multi-storey building. What’s interesting, both these places are not some refuge for romantics, but rather well-thought business projects. They are not just efficiently using the resource of "outdated" buildings, but also contributing to the GDP by supporting creative projects. In Bavaria, for instance, the income from creative and cultural industries comes third, after the automotive industry and mechanical engineering.

Transformation of industrial buildings into useful facilities has been done all over the world for decades, but Ukraine joined in only recently. Some examples include the Mechanics art plant in Kharkov, Platform in Kiev and City Food Market in Odessa, and they are far from the only ones, so it’s just the beginning. After all, Ukraine has more than enough abandoned sites, ideas and even investors.

Of course, unlike the US and Europe, where whole agencies are involved in this, Ukrainians still lack experience. On the one hand, the approach here is the same as in any other business project, on the other – there are some pitfalls.

Let us try to clarify which issues you should address first if you’ve decided to breathe new life into an abandoned flour mill or an old garage by the house:

1. Whose is it? If yours, then great, but it’s seldom the case. Most industrial objects had been state-owned and later privatized. You can look up the ownership on this website kap.minjust.gov.ua/services, ask a notary or consult the records of the Bureau of Technical Inventory. The new privatization bill is going to leave two types of objects –those of large and small privatization. Large privatization objects are expected to be sold with the help of consultants – large law firms. As for small ones, they will be sold through online platforms, with some thirty pilot objects already available on ProZorro. All this gives hope that sites that can be used for the development of creative economy in Ukraine will become more accessible with each year.

2. What used to be there before? Former prison, psychiatric hospital or crematorium are not the best of places for new projects, especially if you have a residential building in mind. The same goes for sanitary conditions – if it’s a factory where harmful substances were burned or chemical pesticides produced, it is worth checking whether any health hazards still remain.

3. Is the building renovation-worthy? In other words, make sure that the ceiling won’t suddenly fall on your head, find out if there’s a way to build a system of internal communications, ensure that fire safety conditions are taken into account, etc. In the West, this is one of the audit’s key stages, with experts exploring every corner and giving their verdict whether it is worth investing in the building.

4. For whom and why are you rebuilding it? Although it is possible to build anything, you should consider the needs of the city and its residents first. It is necessary to take into account the population, the number of tourists, available universities, cultural characteristics of the region, city development strategy, etc. Imagination has no bounds – you can either invent something completely new or borrow inspiration from other projects, such as:

- The Warehouse Hotel, built on the site of a former factory, incorporating the concrete and copper in its interior along with modern construction materials, Singapore.

- Dance school for 300 people on the site of a former tram depot, Dortmund.

- Duisburg-Nord Landscape Park, where one of the largest diving centers in Europe is located on the site of a gas storage tank, Duisburg.

- Clerkenwell Grind restaurant on the site of a factory built back in 1970, London.

- Zollverein museum on the site of the largest mine in Europe – UNESCO heritage that employs 1,000 people, earning about 70 million euros a year from tourists, Essen.

5. How serious are you about it? When assessing various options, aside from basic reinforcement of the object, which is done in all projects, you can use the following classification in your business plan:

- "hard loft" - maximum preservation of the site’s authenticity, with the original walls, ceiling, windows and pipes and no embellishment. A minimal number of modern materials is used.

- "new hard loft" – a merge of the best parts of the building’s interior with modern design solutions and energy efficient technologies. The idea is to preserve the old aesthetics but make the building as comfortable to be in as possible.

- "soft loft" – complete overhaul of the original interior and communications. Only the form remains, with brick and concrete replaced with wood and other materials, pipes concealed and bright colors and lighting often added to the mix.

The budget depends on the project’s chosen purpose and scale. Obviously, hard loft will be cheaper than soft loft: it might not be the best choice for a language school, but it will be suitable for a bar or a hairdresser’s parlor. The issue of funding for such projects deserves its own post. Armed with an interesting idea and a well-thought business plan, in addition to the usual options of banks or investors, you can participate in startup support contests or make use of international funds and crowd funding platforms. However, first you should decide on the basic questions – where and what you wish to build and for what purpose. There are no clear boundaries here, you can and should combine seemingly incompatible things, so that, following the example of the advanced part of humanity, you could turn dull Ukrainian buildings into centers of creativity, active social life and realization of the boldest ideas.