You don’t have to consider yourself a die-hard historic preservationist to see the wisdom of making old buildings function more efficiently and economically. “Retrofitting existing buildings to be carbon neutral is the next wave of architecture, especially in the Northeast, where so much of our stock pre-dates 1980,” says architect Juhee Lee-Hartford, founding principal and managing partner of Hudson Valley–based River Architects, PLLC. “It is the design challenge of our time—and our shared responsibility to future generations—to make all buildings clean, sound, and healthy to live in.”
That’s the catalyst for River Architects’ new Bank Lofts project, an ambitious retrofit designed to transform the former First National Bank of Richfield Springs, New York, into a resilient, all-electric, mixed-use multifamily residence with ground-level commercial space. The project aims to preserve and restore the early-1880s structure’s surviving 19th-century fabric (wood framing with full brick veneer and stone foundation), while dramatically reimagining its 14,787 gross square feet of interior space to fulfill the community’s growing need for quality housing.
Spearheaded by owner/developers Faith E. Gay and Francesca Zambello of locally based Dooalot, LLC, the project will be designed by River Architects and built by Otsego County–based Simple Integrity, LLC. The plan positions the Bank Lofts to meet Phius CORE 2021 standards at a minimum (see Figure 2), which translates to simplified, all-electric mechanical systems and a reduction in overall energy use.
In 2023, the New York Department of State named the Bank Lofts one of 10 regionally significant projects to share $12 million in support as part of its Carbon Neutral Community Development program, administered by the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA). River Architects’ adaptive reuse plan for the long-vacant building also won statewide recognition and support in the third round of NYSERDA’s Buildings of Excellence competition (Early Design Support program), which spotlights plans for replicable and carbon-neutral multifamily buildings that model safe, comfortable living spaces for the people who occupy them while creating attractive long-term business opportunities for owners.
The Buildings of Excellence and the Carbon Neutral Community Development programs both support New York State's Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act, which set a goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 85 percent by 2050. The combined $1.1 million in funds awarded to the Bank Lofts will go a long way toward making the hybrid retrofit/restoration endeavor a profitable investment, but there are additional motivations.
By injecting new life into the local landmark, the Bank Lofts team hopes to help mainstream green building while creating a fresh surge of optimism that will encourage more people to live, visit, and support businesses and job opportunities in a once-affluent Otsego County community they believe is primed for an architectural, cultural, and economic renaissance.
If You Retrofit It, Will They Come?
Making a clean-energy, mixed-used multifamily residential rental building profitable for the owner demands making it attractive to potential occupants. The Richfield Springs Comprehensive Plan, published in 2018, indicates that village residents voiced concerns about a lack of local shopping; a dearth of quality housing for a new generation; and a strong desire to restore the community’s dwindled population of residents, businesses, and pride. The report also called for “sustainability.” The Bank Lofts addresses these priorities.
Slated for Spring 2024 occupancy, the Bank Lofts will offer long-term, market-rate housing targeted to renters seeking living spaces that balance the amenities of an established residential community with proximity to natural beauty and outdoor activities. The plan features nine residences: two studio apartments, five 1-bedroom units, and two 2-bedrooms. One ADA-compliant apartment, accessible by ramp, will be situated on the building’s ground level, while the second and third floors will house four apartments each.
Currently, the proposed tenant for the ground-level commercial space is a community food co-op (open to the public) that offers high-quality products from regional vendors, including seasonal produce from nearby farms, as well as local yogurt, cheese, meat, honey, breads, and staples ranging from organic grains to kimchi and salsa verde. The space also plans to include a small café with public Wi-Fi, a commodity in short supply in the area.
Anticipating the off-street-parking question, Dooalot purchased an adjacent vacant lot behind the former bank building. This acquisition allows the program to meet the residential and commercial parking requirements for the mixed-use building. It also provides opportunities for outdoor seating, activating the streetscape. The project’s 18,284 kWh/yr solar array will be mounted on the parking area’s canopies, powering the building’s systems as well as the property’s EV-charging stations for occupants. On-site parking and bike storage bolsters the list of tenant amenities.
Investing for the Future
The Dooalot team knew from the start they wanted to make the Bank Lofts healthy to live in and efficient to operate. For architect Lee-Hartford—who will direct the project in close collaboration with artisan builder and fellow certified Passive House consultant and builder Josh Edmonds, principal of Simple Integrity—that translates to applying Phius CORE 2021 certification standards through every stage of the retrofit.
Electrical power will be supplemented by an 18,284 kwh/yr solar array.
One-to-one air-source heat pumps will provide building heating and cooling (6,000 BTUs each, one per unit).
ERVs, for ventilation, will be decentralized, with one Zehender ERV serving each of the building’s three stories, plus a smaller additional unit for the ground level’s private residential unit.
The plan also calls for MERV 13 air filters, heat-pump dryers, bike storage for occupants, and EV-charging stations.
The SANCO2 water heaters utilize a split system configuration that uses CO2 as the refrigerant—a low-GWP choice thousands of times less potent than more conventional refrigerants. The split system tank and compressor (located on the exterior) results in a 70-or-more-percent reduction in electricity use compared to typical electric water heaters.
Past, Present, Future
Emotional attachment to the Victorian-era building at 118 West Main Street runs deep in Richfield Springs. Village residents still refer to the red-brick structure that dominates the corner of Center and Main streets as “the bank,” even though there hasn’t been a financial institution on site since the mid-1960s. That’s when the bank (which had merged with the State Bank of Albany in 1956) relocated to its brand-new branch building, replete with parking lot and drive-up teller window. The last tenant most residents recall occupying the old First National Bank building’s ground level was an Italian restaurant/pizzeria that served as a popular gathering spot for a while in the 1980s and ’90s. When the Bank Lofts retrofit team entered the building for the first time in late 2022, they found its interior almost completely gutted (the result of a ditched redevelopment attempt made more than a decade earlier).
Along with its challenges, the 140-year-old former bank building comes with certain advantages to facilitate Phius certification, including:
The building’s massing—an eclectic, three-tiered take on the “classical block”—is basically a box: a flat-roofed, wood-framed structure with a masonry curtain wall and stone foundation. Simple massing allows for a relatively straightforward plan for the complex air and thermal barrier improvements.
The gutted interior also expedites the installation of vapor barriers and insulation necessary for Phius certification. An air barrier will be located between the existing wood framing and the new interior framing cavity, with additional dense-packed, blown-in cellulose insulation to meet the required envelope R-values for Phius certification. A natural product with no known potential side effects (such as off-gassing), cellulose permits less air infiltration than typical batt insulations.
On the ground level, preserving and reusing vintage mosaic-tile floors, white-marble wainscoting, and mahogany paneling will further reduce the project’s carbon footprint while fostering a sense of continuity between old and new.
When the project is complete:
The structure will be stabilized, repaired, and repointed to create a durable and resilient exterior envelope. The preservation and reuse of the building inherently brings with it a drastic reduction in embodied carbon.
The building’s existing 76 window openings (encompassing multiple double and triple units) will be reduced to 73 and fit with architecturally sympathetic and expertly installed triple-pane thermal assemblies from Massachusetts-based YARO Windows and Doors. The number of exterior doors will also be reduced, from seven to four, and replaced with architecturally appropriate custom-engineered thermal versions. (These reductions take no-longer-required basement and external fire-escape windows and doors into account.)
The project’s photovoltaic solar array, mounted on the parking-lot canopies, will satisfy the airtight building’s drastically reduced energy consumption. Back-up battery power will be employed when required in an emergency.
The plan will create a more resilient and temperature-stable interior environment year-round, allowing occupants to stay safe and comfortable for longer periods without any heating or cooling during a prolonged power outage. The robust building envelope will also make living spaces quieter, blunting street noise and poor exterior air quality. The latter co-benefit is of increasing importance to occupant health: This spring and summer, as Canadian wildfires consumed ancient forests, dangerous air-quality conditions repeatedly lingered in Otsego County and beyond.
Simultaneously, the building’s distinctive architectural character will be preserved. The former bank’s surviving façade moldings, monumental steel walk-in bank vault—even the vintage alarm box mounted on the Center Street façade—will once again evoke the strength, stability, and community spirit that defined downtown Richfield Springs at the height of the Gilded Age, when the village earned both fame and fortune as a spa resort and day-trip destination.
Private and public investment in the Phius-certified transformation of a building cherished by the community is good news for Richfield Springs, and good news for the climate. Vacant buildings and ghosted shop fronts have a way of camouflaging the potential of Industrial-era Main Streets. Conversely, sprucing them up can contribute to new growth, as seen in other Upstate New York towns, including Beacon, Hudson, Kingston, and Callicoon.
The Bank Lofts illustrates how positive change starts—with a shared commitment, integrated teamwork, and one bold step forward at a time.