The Art of Adaptive Reuse: Bringing Abandoned Buildings Back to Life in Downtown L.A.
February 26, 2020
An Interview with David Librush from MDM Builders Group
When you think of Los Angeles, iconic images usually come to mind. The “Hollywood '' sign nestled in the Hollywood hills. Sprawling palatial estates in Beverly Hills and streets lined with sunny palm trees. Images of James Dean and Marilyn Monroe. A time when Los Angeles was the capital of cool. From an architectural perspective, the sleek modernist design of the Getty Museum, the Stahl House or the Walt Disney Concert Hall come to mind.
We rarely think of Skid Row. Indeed, we don’t think of the dramatic downward trajectory the city has taken since the turn of the millennium and just how incongruous the iconic images of L.A. have become with the way the city actually looks now. Streets marred by potholes. Smog wafting from the crumbling urban sprawl. But most importantly the buildings. We don’t think of the decaying buildings that now clutter downtown, which, as some have suggested, liken L.A. to an “apocalyptic wasteland” or those sitting on a figurative “endangered buildings list.”
However, thanks to Los Angeles’s Adaptive Reuse program, the city is being slowly revitalized. What is adaptive reuse? Adaptive reuse refers to the process of reusing an existing building for a purpose other than which it was originally built or designed for. Simply put, it’s the art of recycling deteriorating buildings, preventing their demolition and enabling them to become an important part of urban rejuvenation. In fact, adaptive reuse has revitalized thousands of abandoned buildings and contributed to urban regeneration not only in Los Angeles, but across the nation. In short, adaptive reuse is creating new housing opportunities, revitalizing neighborhoods, preserving historic architecture, and encouraging community development.
Buildings in downtown L.A. which are being revived via adaptive reuse include the Merritt Building, vacant for decades, the L.A. Jewelry Mart, originally built in 1917, and the Herald-Examiner newspaper building, which has been vacant since 1989 and is now being converted into offices, stores, and restaurants.
At the center of this historic urban rejuvenation project is MDM Builders Group, which specializes in adaptive reuse and retrofit projects in downtown Los Angeles and leverages cutting-edge construction cost estimation technology. We sat down with David Librush, one of the founders of MDM builders, to get the inside story on one of L.A.’s most active adaptive reuse and retrofit builders.
How did you end up working in the construction industry?
When I got out of the army in 2007, I went to work at my dad’s construction company as a safety officer. I learned a lot in the army about safety and he figured being a safety officer was right up my alley.
It wasn’t my first time working in construction either. I got my first construction job in downtown Los Angeles when I was 15 or 16 working as a manual elevator operator on a construction site.
Now that I think about it, my family has always been involved in construction. So it was only natural that my dad started our family’s construction company back in 2005. It’s officially named M. Librush construction, but we go by MDM Builders Group.
What does MDM stand for?
My dad is the “M” Moshe, I’m the “D” David, and my middle brother is the other “M” Michael. My younger brother Tommy isn’t in the name because he was too young at the time, which still pisses him off!
Unlike me, Michael started working at my dad's company as an employee straight out of high school. Michael did everything from helping with construction takeoff to operating equipment. The only reason I didn’t join until 2007 is because I was in the army.
What kind of work does MDM do?
Mostly adaptive reuse and retrofitting downtown. Ever since my dad started our family business in 2005, that’s how it’s been.
Our very first project was a full retrofit of the Milano lofts on Grand and Six.
We dug underneath the building to create two subterranean parking levels. It was a full historic restoration where we converted the commercial and office spaces into apartments and lofts.
Would you be surprised if I told you I almost went to live in one of those lofts?
Not at all. It’s likely that most of the lofts you saw downtown have either been built or touched by us. If we haven’t built it, we’ve touched it. There are plenty of buildings where we may not have done most of the work, but we fixed something simple or helped with construction cost estimation. That’s how busy MDM builders has been since 2005.
We’ve been very involved in the exploding popularity of downtown for the past decade or so. Our first project in downtown came when the concept of adaptive reuse was new and most people building in downtown L.A. had no experience in it.
My dad took that first project with very little experience. He made up for his lack of experience with his hard-working, roll up your sleeves and “get dirty” attitude. He quickly mastered the concept of adaptive reuse. Because my brothers and I take after him, we were all able to dive into the downtown atmosphere.
How would you guys at MDM describe yourselves?
We’re a general contractor first and foremost.
Do you guys have a list of awards you have won in the past?
We just won the award for the best historic restoration in 2018 or 2019 for restoring the Villa Carlotta in Hollywood. So yeah, we win awards but we don’t really focus on that. We’re a small firm that does big work. In our minds, the project is the award in itself. We don’t keep track of awards, and we don’t try to use them to solicit new projects.
Wait. You mean to tell me you’re always busy with projects, but never try to solicit any?
We’ve kinda made a name for ourselves. We enjoy what we do, and we do a really good job at it. We don’t advertise; we don’t bid out.
Oh, so you have a lot of recurring business?
Sort of. I’ll put it like this: most people who go downtown hear about us. If they don’t come across us or try to talk to us, it’s usually an accident. Some people don’t work with us and choose to go with one of those megafirms.
At the end of the day, if you go downtown looking for someone who can do adaptive reuse or retrofit projects, and you don’t at least approach us, I feel like you’re doing yourself a disservice. I’m not saying that no one else does a good job, but we’ve done enough work in the area to at least be given the opportunity to look at it.
As far as experience goes…sure, there are firms who have been building since 1880 or however far back it goes. But that was their grandfather's grandfather who built it, not them. We’ve been doing the majority of this type of work since it became popular in 2005 and believe we know as much about it as anyone else.
Do you think your local focus helps you in terms of construction cost estimation and construction takeoff?
In a way, yes, we have our core suppliers. That helps us keep costs down and more predictable because they throw us better deals. From time to time we shop around and we always try to stay relevant. We always want to make sure we get the best bang for our buck.
Is there a hero in your life who motivates or inspires you?
My dad. I don’t get easily excited about people…
You said your family moved here from LA or was it a different city?
We were in Israel.
Yeah, we come from Israel. My dad came here in the 80s but my brothers and I were born here. I think we went back to Israel in 1991 and then came back in 2005. I mean, they came back in 2005. I couldn’t come back until 2007 because I was in the IDF (Israel Defense Forces).
And do you ever feel like you might take on international projects since you’ve already lived abroad?
No. MDM builders isn’t built to move. I don’t want anyone to take this the wrong way, because sometimes people think we’re trying to be cocky or condescending about not taking jobs. We’re not. For example… give me a city name.
We likely won’t take a project in Irvine. It’s not like I don’t want to or that I feel negatively about it. But I don’t have the resources to effectively take it on. I don’t have the equipment. I don’t even have the people. Doing the construction takeoff would be easy, but I’d have to hire subcontractors because that’d be cheaper than moving my employees there.
My offices are here in downtown LA. We built it where we thought we’d be working the most. Most of our employees don’t even have cars. They know our jobs have been in downtown LA for the past 15 years and that won’t be changing in the near future.
Speaking of 15 years ago, the recession happened in 2007, right after you guys went into business during 2005. What was that like?
Obviously we didn’t really generate huge amounts of profits. Luckily we were busy on projects we had already started. So it wasn’t like we were getting ready to be busy again.
There was uncertainty because there weren’t any new projects coming up. But fortunately, our projects are between a year and a half to three years long. So we were able to stay busy during the crisis doing the projects we already had, although we weren’t getting new projects.
We did fine. I know people that did worse and people that did better.
There are so many beautiful buildings in downtown LA that you guys built. It’s shocking to realize that those buildings were in a terrible state before you guys came along.
Yeah, we’ve found buildings where you literally see history when you walk in. It’s like you walk into these buildings thinking they’re normal, then by accident, you knock something out and find something amazing.
A lot of times everything is plastered when we arrive. Then we demo the wall, and after the plaster there’s tile. Then after the tile, there’s wallpaper. Then all of a sudden you tear off the wallpaper and there’s just marble.
And you’re like, why would anyone cover this calacatta marble that’s like, you know, 40 bucks afoot, with this cheap wallpaper?!
After doing a demo, we’ll sometimes find a hidden lobby with a ceiling that has sculptures in it. It turns out they used to drop ceilings and put a T-bar right over it to install air conditioning.
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