Adaptive Reuse

Tips from a Preservation Architect: Adaptive Reuse vs. Demolition & New Build

When a building has met the end of its useful life, an owner has a decision to make. Should the building be demolished, or reused? This guide will help you prepare for that conversation with your client.


We sat down with Preservation Architect & Project Manager Kate Reggev to understand the pros and cons to each approach. She also gave us insights into how you, as a trusted advisor, can council your clients through this decision. Here is what she had to say:

The built environment embodies more than just the physical spaces we inhabit; it's an embodiment of the history of the teams that designed and built them. However, nothing lasts forever. With a physical space, we refer to this period as a building's "useful life".

For most structures, this period is an estimate. At the end of this period, the building doesn't just fall over or cease to exist.

 

Rather, the estimate of a building's lifecycle draws from a multitude of factors:

  • How long the equipment inside a facility is designed to last.
  • Does the existing building achieve the “highest and best” use in terms of income for an owner? A taller or larger building may bring in more profit than an existing one.
  • Depreciation and deterioration of a structure due to weathering or other hardships on the building. For instance, wooden structures in marine environments will degrade faster over time than inland structures.
  • Changing tastes and trends from the buildings occupants
  • Or even other criteria such as projected population growth, natural disasters, or desirability. For example, a sports team might seek to update or replace a venue because it offers fewer amenities than other comparable venues.

When a building has met the end of its useful life, an owner has a decision to make.

Should the structure be renovated, repurposed, or demolished?

Some buildings are so culturally significant that it is a no-brainer to restore all or as much as possible. Others are more of an edge case. They may be significant, but there also may not be an economically feasible way to bring them up to needed standards. 

historic ceiling

My perspective as a preservation architect is that not every single building is worth preserving. However, I think every client should understand what the potential is of what they're working with.

Your clients will often seek your consultative advice in making hard decisions. If the building has desirable features, but a completely new purpose and owner may ask you:

Should the building be demolished, or should part or all of the existing structure be reused? In the latter case, how much and what should be reused? 

When a building is renovated for a new purpose, architects use the term: Adaptive Reuse.

Adaptive reuse describes the process they will use to aesthetically and functionally renovate or update an existing building for a use other than which it was originally built or designed for. This process may also be referred to as recycling and conversion.

Adaptive Reuse ≠ Restoration

Rather there is an implicit repurposing of the structure for a new use. The term does however emphasize the preservation of some of the historical significance while integrating modern functionalities.

In simple terms, adaptive reuse involves the transformation of existing spaces to meet new demands. This could mean turning a century-old factory into trendy office space. It could also mean converting a retired church into a vibrant community center. I’ve been in many breweries located in former industrial production facilities. 

Examples of Adaptive Reuse projects

Adaptive building reuse examples abound however, they may be more prevalent in some areas than others. Older cities will by default have more examples than younger cities. Here are 3 examples from London: 

 

What are the benefits of Adaptive reuse?

As an architect or project manager, part of your job is to consult your client on the options they have available in relation to their goals. 

I always like to try and lean into the potential that a building has rather than demolishing it. Often keeping the existing building and renovating it from a sustainability and kind of carbon footprint standpoint is preferable.

This is in contrast with a project that starts with Demolition.

historic ceiling (1)

In these cases the building will be torn down, often with a wrecking ball or a controlled explosion. The environmental impact of such projects that start with demolition can be significant. It often involves extensive use of new building materials and energy. And depending on how the building is demolished, much of that could end up in a landfill. 

There is also a bit of a middle ground where a building may be gutted for reusable materials before the structure is demolished. In these cases, I’d suggest that while you walk the site you focus on documenting what will be reusable and planning for how it will be disposed of. 

What are the drivers that a client will consider when determining whether to renovate or demolish? 

Adaptive reuse buildings offer numerous benefits over projects that start with demolishing an existing site. In many contexts, adaptive reuse is more sustainable and greener. You are starting from an existing building rather than starting completely from scratch. 

Sustainability initiatives will lead some organizations to renovate instead of demolishing.

Some clients may prioritize sustainability targets or goals over pure cost calculations. Carl Elefante famously said, "The greenest building is the one that is already built." In these cases, working with your client to understand the environmental impact that comes with each of your options is key.

The simplest way to approach this is to look at various scenarios. Adaptive reuse construction reduces carbon emissions by minimizing the use of new building materials and construction activities. This calculation is often fairly straightforward: You can simply look at some of your firm’s internal project history to get a good ballpark of what a similar project utilized in terms of materials, then compare that against what can be reused. 

 

For an owner, the most compelling driver is often cost effectiveness.

Renovating an existing structure typically requires less material and labor than building a new one from the ground up. This can significantly reduce overall construction costs, and shorten project timelines as the building envelope already exists.

In cities where older buildings abound, adaptive reuse usually provides the most cost effective solution to urban development challenges. This not only respects and preserves the architectural heritage but also helps revitalize neighborhoods. Just take a look at what has happened around Brooklyn & Williamsburg next time you are in New York!

This approach usually includes rethinking the space to meet current standards or needs and using as much of the existing material as possible. 

When preservation is the main driver

For other owners, historic preservation is the cornerstone of adaptive reuse architecture. When a project is viewed through this lens, the owner often wishes to update the infrastructure to serve modern purposes. This differs from a restoration because the historic accuracy of the building techniques may not be as important. But, the owner still wants to preserve as much of the look and feel as possible. 

ornate-decor-in-croatian-national-theater-zagreb-2023-11-27-04-52-15-utc

With public spaces, museums, or other cultural institutions such as private theaters or historic houses, preservation is often the primary focus. In projects like these, you want to maintain as much of the building as-is so that future generations can visit and enjoy the space and feel how the space was when it was originally constructed. 

I worked on a museum for a client that treated the structure as an extension of the exhibits. They had gorgeous turn of the century porcelain sinks and toilets in the restrooms. Unfortunately, many of these no longer met accessibility standards. 

That led us to plan our interventions by prioritizing the look of the space and maintaining as many sinks as possible while adding more accessible spaces that were easy to find, access, and most importantly: easy to use for those who needed them.   

When your client approaches from this side of the spectrum, your discussion should become “how do we work to preserve the look and feel of the space while updating the infrastructure. Infrastructure goes beyond lighting and plumbing. You will want to understand and give council on the changes to building codes and accessibility regulations that have occurred since the building was first built. 

What are some of the challenges architects face when renovating vs. building from scratch? 

From a practical standpoint, adaptive reuse projects face many challenges. I like to break them into three buckets: 

Technical challenges tend to be the biggest obstacles.

For instance, many older buildings were designed without ADA compliance in mind. Adding ramps or elevators to a space that has narrow doorways or steep steps can be tricky. 

Electrical outside

Adding electrical or plumbing to buildings designed without it can also be a major hurdle. 

How do we get wiring into a concrete slab? How do we weave new mechanicals into an existing really highly decorative plaster ceiling without damaging the ceiling? How do I add security cameras without making it look glaringly obvious that we're installing them in this historic space?

Modernizing an older structure to meet these standards can require clever engineering and design solutions. However, these challenges are not insurmountable and can lead to uniquely functional and aesthetically pleasing spaces.

Programmatic issues may also be a challenge!

The thing about working with an existing building is that the building is it is already there. So if you need 100,000 square foot building and your current building is only 20,000 square feet... you're going to need to either be creative with where you're locating floor plates.

Or you might be thinking about: do I need to add an addition or an extension of the building because you might not be able to jam all of the program or all of the activities that you want to happen in that building 

The final challenge is the theoretical or the aesthetic one:

When you're starting from scratch, the world is your oyster. You can do whatever you want. And when you're working with an existing building, You really have to ask yourself,  what do I want the changes to look like?

Cameras

Do I want them to blend in seamlessly with the existing building? And do I want to make it look like they've always been here? Do I want there to be a really clear, distinct difference between old and new? If I want there to be a distinct difference, what do I want that relationship to look like? Do I want to look like this is just the modern updated version of what was historically there?

Do I want it to be totally different? Those kinds of questions about “how do you see the difference between old and new” is one of the most gratifying and intriguing problems that architects get to deal with when they're working with historic buildings.   

As an architect, your strength is understanding, imagining, and translating the possibilities between the As-Is and To-Be for your client.

For renovation projects with a focus on adaptive reuse you probably will not have all the skills in house. Focusing on the big picture in these projects from the get-go is key. You can't have a really decorative ceiling or a mechanical engineer who says “let's just put a stack over there” in the most jewel box space in the whole project. 

It’s also important to bring in experienced help. For instance, if the project specifies moving a part or all of a building, you will almost certainly need to bring specialist consultants in to help with the lift plan and the move. I suggest that you look for assistance from organizations who have done this before, and in the locale you are working in. 

Row Houses

There are many construction techniques and architectural design styles in use across even a single geographic location. If your client turns to you for a recommendation on who to work with, your suggestion should be to look at their body of work, training, and the experience of their team. A company that works on lots of turn of the century row houses in the northeast will have a drastically different skill set than a company that primarily works with industrial buildings in the midwest!

You don’t want to be teaching someone how to do something while you’re on the project. Or worse: explaining to the client why their wood paneling was left in a non-climate controlled area because the relocation team specializes in desert environment projects and didn’t take into account high humidity in the storage location. 

To sum it all up 

Industry professionals, including those in construction, architecture, and engineering, should consider adaptive reuse as a viable option to present to your clients when they are unsure what direction to go in. Whether the project is an office space renovation or the conversion of an industrial site into a residential area, adaptive reuse offers a sustainable pathway. It combines the preservation of tangible cultural heritage with the need for modern functionality.

When weighing adaptive reuse against demolition, you must consider the broader impacts of each approach and what specifically matters to your client. Adaptive reuse not only conserves resources and reduces environmental impact but also celebrates and preserves our cultural and historical landscapes. However sometimes a renovation simply is not in the cards. In these cases, you can seek to mitigate the environmental burdens by having a well formulated plan for what you do with all the waste materials generated. 

About Kate: Kate is an architect and project manager at Zubatkin Owner Representation with over 10 years of experience in the design, construction, and preservation worlds.

She works on cultural, institutional, and preservation projects that contribute meaningfully to public space with a specialization in renovating, repositioning, and adaptively reusing buildings that have historical, cultural, or architectural significance.

She holds M. Arch and M.S. in Historic Preservation degrees from Columbia University and a B.A. in Architecture from Barnard College, Columbia University.

 

 

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