April 23, 2014 | by Donna Kimura

AU Associates transforms historic schools, post offices, and other buildings into much-needed affordable and mixed-income housing in Kentucky and West Virginia.

Holly Wiedemann breathes new life into old, vacant buildings.

The founding principal and president of AU Associates in Lexington, Ky., Wiedemann revitalizes existing structures into affordable and mixed-income housing. Among the buildings her firm has transformed are a former tuberculosis hospital, a 100-year-old post office, and 11 historic schools.

While new construction and urban infill projects make up about 25 percent of AU’s work, adaptive-reuse properties are the company’s wheelhouse, at 75 percent of its portfolio.

AHF sat down with Wiedemann to learn how her company has thrived, and expanded, its business.

What makes the adaptive reuse of schools into affordable housing work?
Schools are wonderful buildings to recycle. They generally have generous hallways, high ceilings, abundant windows that create light-filled apartments, and are incredibly sturdy. Their usual layout is double-loaded corridors, which makes for a building that still retains a familiar old-school feel after it’s transformed.

We work diligently with the state historic preservation offices and the National Park Service to retain as many features as we can while still adhering to the energy-efficiency requirements of the housing finance authorities. Windows are always tricky, and I think our development result speaks for itself.

Most interesting item found in a building you were converting:
It’s hard to narrow it down. I have to share a few. The basement of our office headquarters has tree trunks, with the bark intact, that serve as beams. We traced the history of our property, and the earliest records we could find place it as being transferred in 1801. It was quite old then, so who knows who might have walked these same floors before Kentucky even became a state?

In the old Jackson (Ky.) Post Office, built in 1914, we discovered a series of catwalks where the postmaster could surreptitiously watch the employees performing every task (even in the washrooms!). Further research revealed that all post offices built during an extensive time period also contained hidden surveillance catacombs. Sometimes, what appeared to be a closet door opened to reveal a drop down a chute—and a big one, at that.

In our 1913 YMCA building, when we removed the dropped ceilings, we discovered ornate plaster ceilings in dimensional relief. We were able to hire the same family-run company (still in business after 80-plus years) to repair the acanthus leaves, using the original plaster molds from the original construction.

In one elementary school, the library had inlaid silhouettes of nursery rhymes in the flooring. It was a beautiful detail. We kept it in place, and one apartment has the distinct pleasure of [seeing] Jack and Jill, the cow [that] jumped over the moon, and Humpty-Dumpty in their living room.

What recent move has your firm made that other developers can learn from?
The success of AU is a result of the people who work here. I believe it is important to keep that foremost. My job is to remove barriers from the path of my team, so we can move forward together. Last year, we began our own property management arm. We really didn’t have enough critical mass of units at the time, but we decided we couldn’t afford not to manage our properties ourselves.

Now, in conjunction with our development and construction divisions, we’re completely vertically integrated. The good news is that we’re all dependent upon each other. The bad news is that if one division isn’t meeting expectations, it affects all of us. None of us can afford to say, “That’s not my job.” We all have to pitch in and problem-solve.

Why affordable housing matters:
We provide housing for those who otherwise would be living in desperate situations. The provision of affordable housing reflects the humanity of our society, in the need to provide shelter for those less fortunate. The need has become more critical every year, as we’re providing much-needed housing with increasingly scarce resources.

In addition to my own thoughts, I went to our director of property management for some direct feedback. Given that we develop throughout rural Appalachia in both Kentucky and West Virginia, we’re in high-poverty areas. Many of our residents experienced substandard plumbing, no insulation, and $400 utility bills in mobile homes prior to living in our developments. Their suffering knew no bounds and was considered the norm before we arrived.

One of our residents, an 18-year-old, told us that our development was the first home in which he felt safe.

Where would we find you when you’re not working?
That’s easy: On my horse, competing. I love jumping and the joy that comes with that. I also love to fly-fish. We live alongside a beautiful creek that boasts smallmouth bass. I rarely catch anything, but I enjoy that it demands my complete focus, and I love to be surrounded by nature.

What’s next for AU Associates?
We have to always continue to learn how to do things better, faster, and more comprehensively. One of my favorite sayings is that experience is what you get when you don’t get what you want. We have a ton of experience.

I’d like us to continue on a path of success and expand our property management to leverage our existing people as we add more. The same with our construction division. I’d like us to do some bigger projects that capitalize on our hard-earned experience.

As another friend of mine would say, we’ll keep doing what we’re doing until we get it wrong.

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