The Pittsburgh region is rife with history. Much of this is evidenced by the landmark buildings located throughout Downtown and the Strip District. At the same time, a number of systems in these buildings can make them undesirable for modern use. Compounded with the fact that not much land is available within the Central Business District or the Strip District, the next best choice is historical building conversion.

When making these historical building conversions, there are a lot of factors to consider. Each building and situation is unique, but at the same time, many come with common concerns. All of these factors, separately and combined, pose risks and can have high costs if not handled correctly. Franjo Construction is one of the few general contractors to have converted many of these existing buildings into apartments, retail, and office space. There isn’t a condition we haven’t seen. Looking at some of the specifics below, we’re outlining these conditions and how we address them.

Ground Improvements

Pittsburgh’s Strip District poses unique challenges. Land is not largely available, so many developers opt to renovate, rebuild, or expand. Ground improvements come into play for ground-up construction as well as adding onto either side of an existing building. Particularly in the Strip District, there are buried railroad tracks, cavern systems, tunnel systems, and large fuel tanks. We have worked with all of these situations, specifically at Otto Milk and Smallman Place, and we understand that ground improvements are important for these kinds of projects. 

Other Foundation Concerns

In addition to filling those caverns and tunnels with concrete, many sites require stronger support. At several sites in the area, Franjo Construction has installed caissons, piers, and pin piles.

Preserving Historical Elements

Often with these projects, some existing features need to be carefully worked around. This can include materials like original woodworking, stone or brick facade, stained glass, and original windows. On narrow streets like those found downtown, this can be especially difficult. It requires a level of grace, which is not generally the first thing people associate with construction. 

Thankfully, Franjo Construction is experienced with this. Looking at the Commonwealth Building, one can see this in action. Originally constructed in 1907 as the Commonwealth Trust Bank, the Commonwealth Building is 21 floors and located in Downtown Pittsburgh. We are currently renovating the building. Once complete, it will be a 150-unit apartment building with ground-level retail space. The project includes the preservation of the building’s historical facade and windows.

TRYP by Wyndham in Lawrenceville is another example. It was converted from a trade school into a boutique hotel with restaurants and a rooftop bar (Over Eden) with spectacular views. There are parts of each floor that maintain features from the structure, which was constructed in 1908. There are original windows, cornices, stained glass, porcelain ceramic tile on the staircases… even the wood from the existing gymnasium was reused throughout the building.

  • Franjo Construction Pittsburgh Bently Maserati
  • Franjo Construction Pittsburgh Bently Maserati

Building Integration

Some developers choose to join adjacent buildings. Otto Milk Condos is a great example of such work. Floors were not aligned but through the use of elevators, stairs, and ramps for ADA accessibility, this goes unnoticed. We also took the existing building systems and adapted them to fit the new design & features. This ties the buildings together to not only provide a consistent image but to maximize efficiency for our client and their tenants.

Commonwealth Building exterior - historical building conversion

Site Accessibility

Downtown, The Strip District, Oakland, Shadyside… one of the many things these areas have in common is the roads. They are full of narrow, one-way streets, or two narrow lanes. The presents issues for large trucks and heavy machinery to access the site let alone parking and storage of materials. Occasionally, the only solution is to temporarily block off a portion of the roadway. Generally speaking, there is a way to avoid this. 

Looking again at the Commonwealth Building site, we have implemented the use of an exterior hoist. Other solutions to these obstacles include things like tower cranes.


Let’s face it, older buildings usually have asbestos somewhere. It was used in building materials freely until the late 1970s when its carcinogenic properties became known. The simple existence of asbestos in a property does not make it inherently dangerous. The issue arises when it becomes airborne. That is almost always guaranteed to occur during construction. 

It certainly can be costly to remediate, but it’s a non-negotiable. Completing evaluations and, if necessary, remediation upfront allows the client and the contractor to better control costs and scope. If these are skipped and asbestos is found during construction, work stops. It’s a health hazard for anyone without the proper training and equipment to address the hazardous material.

The best possible thing our clients can do is to do their due diligence and complete environmental inspections. Our extensive experience enables us to advise our clients on the suggested course of action as it relates to environmental considerations.

Other Challenges

While the above is not a complete list of possible challenges posed when renovating historical buildings in Pittsburgh, they are the most common. Some other challenges to overcome include completing construction while the business remains open and operational.  

No matter what comes up, Franjo Construction is prepared to handle any challenge.