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How Adaptive Reuse Gives Defunct Buildings New Leases on Life

  • Adaptive reuse takes many forms, from preserving heritage to transforming vacant buildings into opportunities to revitalize communities.
  • Prolonging the lifespan of buildings is a sustainable strategy with social and financial advantages.
  • Explore 10 examples of adaptive reuse in action, bringing new value and purpose to disused and dilapidated buildings.

There’s a famous saying by architect and sustainability expert Carl Elefante: “The greenest building is the one that is already built.” Experts predict that 90% of real-estate development in the next decade will focus on renovating and reusing existing structures. It’s easy to see why: Adaptive-reuse projects are generally faster, more cost-effective, and more sustainable to construct than new buildings. 

What Is Adaptive Reuse?

Adaptive reuse is the repurposing of buildings that have outlived their original purpose. Its main goals include preserving architectural and cultural heritage, transforming urban blight, and igniting social change. Yet these approaches share a goal of extending the useful life of buildings as societal and technological needs evolve.

Types of Adaptive Reuse in Architecture

Adaptive reuse can take many forms. In architecture, adaptive reuse refers to repurposing an existing structure for new use, such as turning vacant buildings into schools, public parks, offices, or apartments.

Historic Preservation

Both adaptive reuse and historic preservation can save historic buildings, but the approaches are different. Adaptive reuse aims to repurpose an old building or site for new uses; this process is often viewed as a compromise between preservation and demolition. Historic preservation, in contrast, sustains a building’s existing form, integrity, and materials. Exterior additions and alterations don’t fall within the scope of this treatment, but minimally invasive mechanical, electrical, and plumbing (MEP) upgrades and work required to meet new building codes are generally appropriate, according to standards published by the National Park Service, which administers the National Register of Historic Places.

One of the biggest benefits of adaptive reuse over historic preservation is having the flexibility to use new, efficient architectural materials while still paying homage to the structure’s history. This approach improves a building’s performance while lowering its carbon footprint.

Renovation

Adaptive reuse, by design, implies renovation. While renovation is generally limited to repairing and refinishing a building but preserving the building’s original purpose, adaptive reuse implies a transformation of use.

Integration

Integration involves constructing around an original structure, preserving that structure while encompassing it inside a new building. One striking example of integration is Denmark’s Jægersborg Water Tower, which was converted by Dorte Mandrup into student housing.

Facadism

Facadism is the urban design tactic of preserving a building’s facade while demolishing the bulk of the rest of the building to replace it with a modern structure. The process is known as a facadectomy; it preserves the streetscape view but is expensive because the facade, which is usually built from fragile historical materials, needs to be supported and protected during construction. Historic-preservation advocates tend to view facadism as a poor substitute for preserving an entire building, but supporters consider it a better alternative than erasing a city’s historic footprint.

Infrastructure

While most adaptive reuse focuses on buildings, some of the most innovative adaptive reuse projects transform outdated or unused infrastructure into community features.

A famous example of adaptive reuse in infrastructure is New York City’s High Line. Once an elevated railway known as the West Side Elevated Line, this lofty park winds through nearly 1.5 miles of lower Manhattan and features more than 500 species of plants and trees, resting spaces and viewing balconies, an open-air food market, and ramp accessibility.

Both a nonprofit organization and a public park, the High Line on the West Side of Manhattan repurposes more than a mile of former elevated rail line.

What Are the Advantages of Adaptive Reuse?

The advantages of adaptive reuse are far-reaching, spanning economic, social, and ecological benefits.

1. Sustainability

Fun fact: A new energy-efficient building can take 10 to 80 years to overcome the environmental impact of its own construction process. Think of buildings as very large manufactured goods; prolonging the lifespan of existing structures is a sustainable strategy that’s becoming a necessity as the world population grows more urbanized. On a broad scale, adaptive reuse brings the world closer to reaching net-zero carbon goals because it addresses carbon burdens that already exist in the built environment.

Adaptive reuse is often more sustainable than simple historic preservation: When designers are not constrained to using original building materials, they can incorporate recycled materials and efficient systems; projects can even earn LEED certification.

2. Financial

Beyond the primary savings that come with reusing existing materials and infrastructure and avoiding demolition and new-construction costs, adaptive-reuse projects tend to have low acquisition costs and often have access to financing incentives. Well-planned adaptive-reuse projects can revitalize the businesses around them and restore economic confidence in a region.

3. Social

Bringing dilapidated buildings back to life revitalizes neighborhoods by providing affordable housing, increasing public safety, and offering new commercial opportunities in mixed-use spaces. These spaces are also ideal for small businesses, thanks to low lease costs and central locations, making it easier to establish important relationships with customers and neighbors.

4. Master Planning

Adaptive reuse can give master planners more flexibility, providing options for growth and modernization. It can also help planners achieve ambitious sustainability goals, such as reducing vehicle use by locating housing near transit lines and jobs.

Limitations of Adaptive Reuse

Not every building is suited for adaptive reuse. Even if developers can ensure that the reconstruction will be useful and serve local market needs, they have to navigate obstacles from building hazards to legal red tape. Common challenges include existing financial obligations or, in the case of hotels, franchise agreements. Additional problems may arise in meeting modern safety standards, land-use and zoning laws, and building codes, such as footprint constraints and lack of accessibility compliant with the Americans With Disabilities Act.

In some cities, such as Portland, OR, renovations often require seismic upgrades and other expensive improvements that can outweigh a building’s future revenue potential. Older buildings can also come with hazards such as asbestos, lead paint, and mold, though these issues can usually be addressed during construction.

10 Examples of Adaptive Reuse

1. KTGY’s Re-Habit Program Repurposes Big-Box Store

There are more than 580,000 homeless people in the United States. Of those, about 35% don’t have access to a bed. At the same time, more than 5,000 retail stores closed in 2021. What if there were a way to address both issues with a single solution?

Architecture firm KTGY hopes to do just that with its Re-Habit mixed-use transitional-housing concept, which would repurpose the footprint of a vacant big-box store into a co-living community center with sleeping pods, dining halls, recreational areas, retail spaces, and resources to help residents develop strategies for long-term self-sufficiency. Work opportunities support programming and help residents feel invested in the center’s success. Centers are designed with sustainability in mind, incorporating rooftop gardens and energy-efficient photovoltaic facades.

The Tai Kwun (Big Station) complex retained, repaired, and strengthened 16 historic buildings for a new art and cultural center—Hong Kong’s largest historic revitalization project.

2. Hong Kong’s New Arts Center Provides a Bridge to Colonial History

Hong Kong’s new Tai Kwun (“Big Station”) center, which opened in 2018, gives 16 historic police and judicial buildings new life as a 300,000-square-foot cultural complex. The site preserves 150-year-old structures—relics of Hong Kong’s time as a British colony—and incorporates two new structures.

Today, visitors can enjoy concerts and art exhibitions, sip cocktails in a jail that once imprisoned Ho Chi Minh, and admire the continuity between old and new architecture highlighted in the original-brickwork-inspired aluminum cladding enveloping the gorgeous JC Cube and JC Contemporary art galleries.

3. Building Affordable Housing in Pandemic-Shuttered Office Spaces

California’s affordable housing crisis has been growing for decades. At the same time, the pandemic has left a glut of dormant office buildings across the state. The notion of converting these large abandoned spaces into housing is gaining traction, driven in part by Governor Gavin Newsom’s Project Homekey and other state initiatives.

According to a RentCafe study, 2021 was a record year for residential conversions, with more than 4,322 projects planned for Los Angeles alone. One notable example is the transformation of the city’s iconic Hollywood Western Building into a mixed-use affordable housing complex. The Art Deco masterpiece—often called the Mayer Building after of one of its developers, Metro-Goldwyn Mayer co-founder Louis Mayer—is a Los Angeles Historic-Cultural Landmark and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Plans call for converting the 48,000 square feet of office space on the upper floors of the four-story structure into 79 income-restricted residences while retaining approximately 10,000 square feet of street-level retail space.

exterior view of Michigan Central Station shot from below on a sunny day
An exterior shot of the disused Michigan Central Station

4. Ford’s Corktown Campus: A Step Closer to a Revitalized Detroit?

Not many American cities offer more adaptive-reuse opportunities than Detroit, with its thousands of abandoned structures standing testament to the crushing economic decline that followed the automotive industry moving production out of the city.

In recent years, however, the city has become a model for economic resurgence, thanks in part to big investments in its downtown area. One of the most high-profile ventures is the Ford Motor Company’s ambitious plan to transform the historic Michigan Central Station in Detroit’s Corktown neighborhood into a 1.2-million-square-foot “innovation campus” that promises to bring 2,500 Ford employees into the area and create 2,500 additional jobs.

The 30-acre site plan, developed by lead architect and strategic planner Practice for Architecture and Urbanism, centers around a walkable community anchored by the train station. It will prioritize the needs of residents and businesses and connect with the surrounding neighborhoods and city, while preserving the area’s history.

Building the vast campus, which will focus on autonomous and electric vehicles and urban mobility solutions, starts with drying out the 600,000-square-foot structure that had been heavily damaged by the elements since the last train departed 30 years ago.

5. LEED-Certified Living Inside a Piece of Aviation History

Trenton, NJ’s Roebling Lofts complex is a shining example of sustainable building transformation. The structure once belonged to the John A. Roebling’s Sons Co. wire factory, which supplied cables to most of the major suspension bridges built in the United States during the first half of the 20th century—including New York City’s George Washington Bridge and the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. Most famously, Roebling’s Sons Co. provided wires for Charles Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis for its historic 1927 transatlantic flight.

The building, constructed in 1917, was a modern facility for its time, with extra-large windows and fire-resistant design. The contemporary mixed-use complex was designed by Clarke Caton Hintz to be as sustainable as possible, which, given the buildings historic status, called for collaboration with the National Park Service to receive a Federal Historic Tax Credit. The architects incorporated solar panels and recycled materials throughout while preserving the building’s exterior masonry and steel and timber framing. (Original factory elements, including a wire-rope-testing machine, remain on display in common areas.) The project is certified LEED Gold and achieved 10 out of 10 Water Efficiency credits and high Indoor Environmental Quality credits.

6. Tel Aviv’s Jaffa Hotel Blends Eight Centuries of Architecture

For visionary designer John Pawson and architect and conservationist Ramy Gill, the Tel Aviv Jaffa Hotel has been a monumental labor of love. It took a decade to restore and renovate Jaffa’s historic School of the Sisterhood of Saint Joseph convent and adjacent 19th-century former French hospital, transforming them into boutique accommodations and residences for the W Hotels brand. The final design mixes classic architectural styles including Arabic and neoclassical with contemporary elements, paying homage to the building’s historic beauty with scraped plastered walls revealing generations of patina. But its most unique design element started as a surprise: During excavation, crews discovered an ancient courtyard and bastion wall that date to the Crusades of the 13th century; those remnants are now a focal point in the new structure.

7. Google’s LA Land Grab: An Iconic Valley Mall

For Angelenos of a certain generation, the Westside Pavilion was the place to be back in the day. The West LA landmark, which opened in 1985, was a cultural icon for decades, making cameos in countless movies, television shows, and music videos. The mall was designed by architect Jon Jerde, best known for his structures for the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles and his grandiose mall designs, such as the gargantuan Mall of America in Minnesota. But business declined in recent decades, and the building was shuttered in 2018.

Developer Hudson Pacific Properties is renovating the sprawling three-story center as One Westside, a high-tech multiuse complex that will mainly house tech giant Google, which will occupy 584,000 square feet of space. A $410 million renovation, slated for completion in 2022, will introduce radical new features, including terraces and patios with folding glass walls intended to foster an indoor-outdoor work environment.

The mall takeover is just one component of the tech giant’s expanding presence in Los Angeles, following the company’s transformation of Playa Vista’s historic Spruce Goose hangar complex into office and production spaces for its YouTube division. (Nostalgic for the golden days of mall culture? The Westside Pavilion is forever immortalized in Tom Petty’s “Free Fallin’” music video—available on YouTube, of course.)

Before it became a cultural hub, the site was previously home to a flour mill and a cheese processing factory. Courtesy of The Momentary, Bentonville, AR.

8. From Cheese Factory to Contemporary Art Complex

The Momentary, a contemporary art space in Bentonville, AR, is just the latest incarnation of a place that’s undergone many dramatic transformations during the past 150 years. Long an Osage Nation hunting ground, the site was converted to an orchard in the 1800s and then served as an Eagle Flour mill from 1913 to 1947, at which point it became a cheese-processing factory for Kraft Foods until 2013.

The Momentary was conceived as a nontraditional cultural hub with exhibition spaces; performance venues for music, theater, and film; and studio spaces that support an artist-in-residency program. Tasked with transforming the 63,000-square-foot site into a multidisciplinary space for visual, performing, and culinary artists, Wheeler Kearns Architects aimed to keep as much of the existing structure as possible. The architects highlighted the contrast between old and new by using contemporary materials such as steel and glass in additions, overlapping social and culinary spaces with art spaces to champion contemporary art’s role in everyday life. 

In St. Louis, the Cortex Innovation Community transformed an outdated and neglected 200-acre industrial district into a mixed-use center for entrepreneurship. Courtesy of HOK.

9. A Long-Vacant Printing Plant Gets a High-Tech Transformation

For 20 years, the design teams at HOK have been transforming the site of a blighted 200-acre industrial district in St. Louis into the state-of-the-art Cortex Innovation Community, which hosts hundreds of organizations in a vibrant mixed-use complex 4 miles west of downtown.

HOK’s work shaping the architectural and interior projects at Cortex has included numerous new constructions and adaptive reuse projects and the design of 22 office, lab, coworking, incubator, accelerator, and innovation center fit-outs.

This expansive project included converting a vacant 1930 building that once served as the printing press for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch into a multi-tenant incubator facility for St. Louis’s growing bioscience-startup community. The 1930 Crescent Building, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, has been renovated to introduce new spaces while preserving its historic integrity. The complex supports biotech firms in all stages of development, from startups to large-scale organizations. Features include a multistory atrium that had once accommodated printing presses, a green roof, a walkout terrace, and 20-foot windows throughout.

Entrance to JFK Airport TWA terminal shot from inside
Entrance area of the TWA Terminal at JFK Airport, designed by Eero Saarinen.

10. Channel Your Inner Don Draper at JFK Airport’s TWA Hotel

History is repeating itself at New York’s John F. Kennedy airport, where an iconic airline terminal has found new life as a boutique hotel. The bright, sweeping TWA Flight Center terminal, designed by renowned architect Eero Saarinen for the now-defunct Trans World Airlines, became an instant architectural icon when it opened in 1962 but was abandoned in 2001 following the airline’s financial decline.

The building reopened in early 2019 after a two-year, $245 million restoration involving 22 government agencies and more than 170 firms. The hotel has meticulously preserved its midcentury glory and features 512 soundproof guest rooms with floor-to-ceiling windows made of Fabrica glass; they’re said to be the second-thickest windows in the world. Travelers with shorter layovers can enjoy the hotel’s restaurants, retail spaces, and roof deck with infinity pool.

This article has been updated. It originally published in June 2019.

About the Author

Sarah Jones is a Bay Area–based writer, editor, musician, and content producer. She’s the live-sound editor at Live Design magazine and the AEC section editor at Redshift. Sarah’s articles have appeared in Mix, Electronic Musician, Keyboard, Berklee Today, The Henry Ford, and on Grammy.com.

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