A group of Roger Williams University graduate architecture students designed a series of plans for an arts-focused historic mill at Market Square in Woonsocket. In the process, they learned first-hand the challenges of adapting historic structures for modern use while providing the mill owner with ideas she plans to use.
Led by Martha Werenfels, principal of the Providence architectural firm of Durkee Brown Viveiros Werenfels Architects in her capacity as an adjunct professor, the 12 students spent the fall semester poring over what is now called Le Moulin, the former Woonsocket Rubber Company complex of mills in the heart of Woonsocket, dating from the 19th century.
“It was very exciting. The kids came up with some awesome ideas,” said Marie Deschenes, owner of Le Moulin. “I was thrilled, they put a lot of time and effort into it.”
The project allowed the students to “realize that, when you’re working with historic buildings, they come with their own set of challenges,” Werenfels said. “This did represent a realistic challenge.”
Much architectural work today in Rhode Island, Connecticut and Massachusetts, she noted, involves the reuse of historic mills, even though Rhode Island’s historic tax credits have been eliminated. “We still do a lot of historic-mill projects to take advantage of the federal tax credits,” Werenfels said.
One aspect of the project that flies in the face of reality is the fact that no cost estimates were incorporated into any of the 12 plans that resulted, although the possibility of obtaining federal historic tax credits was a factor some students considered.
Rather than delve into finances at such an early stage, “we try to do the first 1 percent of a project, when nobody is sure it will work,” said Arnold N. Robinson, director of the Community Partnerships Center at the Roger Williams architecture school.