While ENR Midwest’s 2021 Best Projects run the normal gamut of project type categories from airports and transit to water and environment, a frequent theme in 2020 was contractors, owners and designers coming to together to create adaptive reuses of existing buildings and infrastructure.

ENR Midwest’s Project of the Year was the redevelopment of the historic 1916 Old Cook County Hospital into two Hyatt hotels. The other inventive reuses include turning the original Marshall Field’s flagship store in Chicago into offices, transforming a former Kmart in Waukegan, Ill., into a Cristo Rey College Prep school, converting a former Home Depot into a health care provider’s office and community center and renovating a former recycling center in Muscatine, Iowa, into a facility that turns expired food and other organic waste into fuel used to run a water treatment plant.

The Midwest’s engineers and contractors can legitimately say they’ve already been building back better with the region’s existing assets as construction markets continue to recover from the pandemic and the associated lockdowns of 2020. Independent industry judges selected 39 Best Projects and awards of merit out of 104 entries. 

“Where there’s a will, there’s a way. I have yet in my career to come upon a historic building or an older building that could not be reused, that was so far gone that it couldn’t be made into something new,” says Bonnie McDonald, president and CEO of Landmarks Illinois, a nonprofit group dedicated to the preservation of historic buildings. “There’s always a way to rehabilitate a place and to do so if you have the vision, the passion and the resources to do so. It’s being able to get together that combination of things.”

Landmarks Illinois first listed Old Cook County Hospital on its most endangered historic places list in 2001, when then-Cook County Board President John Stroger favored demolishing it, and again in 2003, 2004 and 2005. The group has been working with developers to save it for 18 years. They spearheaded the effort to get the hospital added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2006, opening it to tax credits.

While Old Cook County Hospital and the 100-plus-year-old Daniel Burnham-designed Macy’s State Street store were popular renovations with design-build teams behind them, the former Kmart in Waukegan, Ill., and an abandoned Chicago Home Depot were more common victims of online commerce. 

“[In] a community like Waukegan, there are generations of immigrant families that have seen that Kmart close. It’s this scar on the neighborhood that kind of embodies the lack of investment in the community,” says Juan Moreno, the architect behind the transformation of the store into Cristo Rey St. Martin College Prep, a private high school in the Archdiocese of Chicago. “To tear it down would just pour salt in that wound, but when you take that former building and completely transform it, it starts to heal.”

To register for ENR Midwest’s virtual Best Projects event, visit https://www.enr.com/enr-best-projects-awards/chicago.