Former casket factory overcomes challenges to create affordable housing in Fond du Lac

The renovated casket factory building now serves a new purpose as residential housing.

Renovating a property listed on the historic registry is difficult.

Doing it while also changing the property's intended use is even harder.

Taking that on after a fire and with hazardous contamination present is the kind of challenge that requires experts from across industries to work together. When they do it successfully, the results can be spectacular.

That's what happened in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, where Fehr Graham engineers and environmental professionals joined a redevelopment team to turn a former casket factory into residential housing.

The Northern Casket Company at 16 N. Brooke St. was placed on the historic registry a century after it opened. A longtime Fond du Lac industry staple, the building was mostly architecturally intact. It was, however, abandoned and the City began working toward redevelopment in 2018.

Two years later, as the City worked toward gaining adjacent property through eminent domain, the former casket factory caught on fire. Although multiple fire crews responded, a nearby water main break impeded their efforts.

Enter developer Commonwealth Companies, which secured $35 million in federal and state housing tax credits and a $3.6 million state grant to breathe life back into the property. But before Commonwealth got too far into the project, they called on Fehr Graham to evaluate the environmental risks.

Fehr Graham engineers completed a Phase I Environmental Site Assessment and hazardous building materials survey. What the team found, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons in soil, asbestos containing building materials, and lead-based paint, was expected because of the building's history as a manufacturing operation, age and site for lumber storage.

We detailed that information in a report the contractor used to identify and appropriately handle hazardous materials during the renovation. At the same time, we determined the extent of the contamination in the property's soil and groundwater and developed solutions to protect future residents.

We decided to add an engineered barrier to the design to protect residents from residual polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons in soil.

Throughout construction, our engineers provided guidance. Regulations from Wisconsin's Department of Natural Resources needed to be followed throughout construction so the project would qualify for final case closure upon completion.

It was a two-year project for Fehr Graham engineers before the Brooke Street Lofts opened to tenants. It featured original factory flooring and exposed bricks, a nod to the building's history.

Brooke Street Lofts features 62 one-, two- and three-bedroom units that range from $473 to $1,312 a month in rent. They are available to people who qualify for affordable housing.

We're proud of our environmental knowledge and engineering background benefiting Fond du Lac and its residents. We appreciate partnering with developers like The Commonwealth Companies to help transform underused properties into assets. And we're glad the community has more affordable and environmentally safe places to call home.

To learn more about how Fehr Graham engineers and environmental professionals can help transform properties with safety, sustainability and strategic design in mind, contact us or give us a call at 920.453.0700.