100-Year-Old Seattle Church Is Converted to Housing

Why is this so difficult and why does it take so long?

The exterior of a Seattle church that got converted into housing. It has a white facade.
Exterior of Abbey.

Rafael Soldi

One gets the sense that it is really hard to build multifamily housing in Seattle, that it runs from NIMBY (Not In My Backyard) to full BANANA (Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anyone).

Architects Allied8 shares the backstory behind the Columbia City Abbey Apartments, where it describes the difficulties it had getting approval to convert an old 1923 church into 12 residential and two commercial units.

Old church original photo
Original church before renovation.


"Several developers had attempted to redevelop the property but failed on the hurdles of an old building, a strict zoning code, or a limited budget. We worked closely with the client to navigate each successfully. Our research found that if we did not change the exterior massing (a hard sell for an architect!) we could significantly increase the floor area on the interior."
Interior renovation


It is often the case with zoning bylaws that set limits on floor area that it becomes impossible to do anything like this, to add floor space even if it is inside and nobody can see it, but they apparently were able to use an old zoning bylaw to increase the area a bit: "Combining planning and design, we revised an old master use permit and an expiring contract rezone while designing an adaptive reuse concept, increasing the total floor area by 28%, or 5,000 SF."

Inteiror photo

Rafael Soldi

The project is a speculative rental project, but the architects won't get an argument when they say it is "sustainable" because as we like to say, the greenest building is the one already standing.

"Sustainability is contained within the practice of extending the useful life of the building another 100 years. The latest, most efficient mechanical systems were beyond the budget, but being aggressive about what we preserved and reused translated to both savings and a reduction of our carbon footprint. This meant that, for the first time in 20 years and after a handful of hopeful developers, our client was able to succeed and the Abbey still stands."
upper apartment

Rafael Soldi

Indeed, as we have noted many times, the first principle for reducing embodied carbon and upfront carbon emissions is "increasing utilisation of existing assets through renovation or reuse." The first rule in the Architects for Climate Action manual is: "Reuse existing buildings: Pursuing a strategy of retrofit, refurbishment, extension, and reuse over demolition and new build." However, one might point out that if they want it to last another 100 years, it would have been nice had they put in the most efficient mechanical systems.

Giant Truss in room

Rafael Soldi

Every apartment is different and you do get some odd conditions, like giant trusses in the middle of rooms, but that is part of the charm. They also make no pretense of historicity, using a modern palette of color and material. In an interview for Gray Design + Culture, architect Leah Martin says, “Our intent was to revive the 1923 building where we could. It wasn’t about replicating the original building. It was about offsetting the historic moments in the building with modern touches and functionality.” It is also more cost-effective.

"The Abbey’s age and history offered inspiration, especially paired with the historic photos. No two units are the same size or layout, owing to the unique opportunities afforded by the Abbey’s interior architecture–we wanted to offer each resident a personal, tactile relationship to the past of the Abbey, and in turn to the history of their neighborhood. We built with the same robust materials the Abbey was originally constructed with–brick, timber, concrete. This not only offers residents more sound privacy than contemporary apartment buildings, but also acts as a natural thermal mass."
Exposed concrete

Rafael Soldi

Developers building rental housing have tight budgets. Allied8 has made a virtue of necessity by not spending money on adding stuff, but instead, it takes stuff away, leaving exposed brick and concrete features. I don't love how the kitchens are all one long wall in the great room, but it is flexible and open and the great rooms are big.

In a time when we need a lot more housing, we need a lot more clever adaptive reuse of existing buildings like this. Governments should make it easy instead of it being such a long hard slog; this project started in 2014. We won't fix our cities if it takes seven years to do a renovation.