When most people go home from work, they don't head for a manufacturing facility. But in Ybor City, a National Historic Landmark District of Tampa, Fla., it's trendy to live in such a place, like the Tampa Box Factory. The facility, originally built by hand in 1915, has been restored and converted into the Box Factory Lofts, with 53 two-story loft homes.

Concrete block proved to be the ideal building material for the “adaptive reuse” project, providing both historic continuity and modern practicality. The 68,000-sq-ft building formerly housed the world's largest cigar box manufacturer. Its original concrete masonry walls were still largely intact when restoration began in early 2006. The walls gave architect Lord, Aeck & Sargent a good place to start.

“The Barrio Historic Preservation Board required us to preserve the original masonry,” explained Ellena Lin, project architect, “but we would have done that anyway because it is interesting, attractive, and enhances the quality of the project.”

To ensure high quality restoration, Miles Development Partners hired Paul J. Sierra Construction as general contractor. The Tampa firm has more than 30 years of experience restoring Ybor City's historic structures, which Andy Castro, Sierra's commercial division manager, described as “either related to the cigar industry or social clubs.”

At one time, Ybor City was considered the cigar capital of the world, which is a designation the city still celebrates during its annual Cigar Heritage Festival. In fact, Andy Castro's own grandparents were cigar makers who worked in buildings just like the Tampa Box Factory. Most of the city's residents spent their free time in one of the many social clubs established by the Spanish, Italians, Cubans, Germans, and other nationalities who settled there.

Click here to see the slideshow

Life in a factory

Unlike the Box Factory, most of the old social clubs have been converted into office buildings, or renovated for their original purpose as community gathering places. The Box Factory Lofts is one of the first new housing developments in the area. Sierra hired Joswig Construction to create livable space in this industrial setting, and also preserve the building's original character. Joswig is a local masonry contractor specializing in historic restoration and repair.

The versatility of concrete block is most obvious inside the loft units, where the material bridges the gap between the contemporary residences and their nearly 100-yr-old setting. Architects specified standard 8-in. concrete masonry units for new load-bearing walls.

The walls were deliberately left unfinished to create juxtaposition between the old and new materials and separate the individual loft homes, which range between 950 and 1700 sq ft. The walls were also designed to support the building's new inner tier roof, raised 5½-ft above the existing roof to add second-level lofts to each unit.