The role of adaptive (re)use


In the world of construction, there is a motto: “The greenest building is the one that is already built.” This means that if an existing building can be reused for a new purpose, it is better to do so then to try to build a new “green” building from the ground up. This paper delves into the pros and cons of adaptive reuse. Related topics of historic preservation and sustainability are touched on as they deal with the feasibility of reuse design. Problem issues of urban sprawl, gentrification, and timeliness are also discussed. Finally, developers' concerns and considerations of people, places, and profit are addressed. Case studies are discussed and analyzed as examples of reuse design and the reasoning behind its use. This paper aims to explain the role of adaptive reuse strategies, as well as serve as a tool to help proprietors decide when to attempt adaptive reuse.


In today's consumptive society, the concept of a building outlasting its intended purpose is strange, confusing, and even abrasive. The great divide in design has always been form versus function. Designers only look at one form and one function: the facility design for the intended program. They do not design in consideration for the eventual end of the established program and the continued life of the building. Simply put, new buildings are not designed to evolve.

Prior to the mass influx of housing needed after World War II, buildings were expected to last multiple lifetimes. Materials with long lifespans, such as concrete, masonry and terracotta coupled with simple, elegant designs meant a building could be used for decades with just routine care. After the war, with developmental concepts like Buckminster Fuller's Dymaxion House and the proliferation of the suburb, buildings in general started to become less and less permanent. Buildings needed to go up quickly and cheaply; concrete and masonry mass gave way to the cheaper and quicker use of stock designs and light materials. The ideology of “McMansions” and “cookie-cutter-housing” unfortunately is now the norm, with architecture relegated to the connoisseur.

This situation has led to several questions: What of our heritage? What happens to the energy stored in the creation of the building and of the waste created from constant demolition and construction? What happens to the surrounding site with the constant swelling and compression of space? Perhaps there is another way to design and think about buildings. Could a building evolve as it is needed? Is the life cycle of a building longer than its conceptive function? The process of Adaptive Reuse (AR) is the only viable solution to these issues. This paper will focus on what role adaptive reuse plays in today's constructed environment.


The phrase Adaptive Reuse has many technical definitions and understandings (Langston et al., 2008; Langston, 2010; Thornton, 2011). To just look at the phrase in context, one can define it as “to use a building for a new purpose.” This is simple enough, but allows for further expansion. In order to re-use a building, it has to have an initial use, one that is no longer relevant. Also, to qualify as adaptive, the new use must be something different from the old. So, now the definition can be built up to “the installation of a different program into an existing building.”

Building programs may fail for a number of reasons: the business failed, the site no longer needs the program, redundancy, and so forth (Langston, 2010). So when a building is left vacant, there are two options: to reuse it or demolish it. Demolitions are costly and simple reuse could lead to the same program failure. (Langston et al., 2008; Langston, 2010; Thornton, 2011) To determine if a facility is worth adaptively reusing, Langston proposes a number of criteria to determine a building's Adaptive Reuse Potential, or ARP:

Date of original construction. Date of subsequent major refurbishment. Forecast of physical life. Obsolescence of physical, economic, functional, technological, social, legal, and political criteria. Annual rate of obsolescence. Predicted useful life. Current ARP score and trend Maximum ARP score. ARP risk exposure. (Langston, 2010)

This potential can help give a quantifiable assessment of a building, but it is still incomplete. Buildings carry more than just finite measures; they have social, historical, and environmental aspects that need to be assessed as well. A simple focus on costs and capital gains is too limiting, and can lead to premature building demolition. (Langston et al., 2008; Langston, 2010; Thornton, 2011)

Other than the economics of the problem, Adaptive Reuse has advantages and disadvantages. It preserves history in creative and modern ways; it contributes to climate change initiatives and preserves the intrinsic energy of the already-constructed facility.

Historic Preservation

There are multiple levels of intervention as pertains to historic preservation: simple preservation, rehabilitation, restoration, reconstruction, reconstitution, conservation (consolidation), replication, and stabilization. A facility such as Boston's Old State House, for example, may be restored to a specific time, but then used for a different function. Sites that are used as house museums, or that are only restored and/or preserved, are not Adaptive Reuse examples as they simply showcase the relevant function of the site at the specific time, not a contemporary use. AR projects may need to reconstitute materials, such as rotting wood filled with resin or will reconstitute materials into chic furniture designs in order to retain some of the ambiance of the site. The developer could use strategies from more than one level of intervention, but the facility's ultimate reuse deems it a rehabilitation project. (Ligibel, 2011)

Bullen puts it succinctly: “The strong desire of society to conserve buildings encourages the use of adaptive reuse.” (Bullen, 2010) Society's desire, as he puts it, is actually the endeavored goal sought by historical preservationists. The historic registers will provide anyone with the brief précis of a historically significant location. Hein observes that, “European cities celebrate their past by preserving significant buildings that mark their history” (Hein, 2008). Unlike European countries, however, mere inclusion on the list does not provide any kind of legal protection for American buildings. Developers are free to do whatever they like with their properties, until organizations or individuals step in. Langston notes, “Around the world, adaptive reuse of historic buildings is seen as fundamental to sound government policy” (Langston, 2010). Society and governments seem to agree that old buildings are worth saving, but are hesitant to infringe on personal property rights.

The AR process allows for these buildings to remain historically relevant in a modern context. As Nasser points out, “We want old things to ‘seem' old, with antiquity validated by decay and the patina of age” (Nasser, 2003). In order for preservationists to create the ideal environment, there must be a balance between total preservation and modern updates. Perhaps reconstituted materials mixed with a consolidated structure and containing a contemporary program would be acceptable, or a restored facility with reconstructed features housing new functions could create the desired balance. In any case, the unifying theme of AR for historic preservation should be an amalgamation of historic and contemporary. Bullen notes as well that “the most successful [historic preservation] adaptive reuse projects are those that best respect and retain the building's [historic and cultural] significance and add a contemporary layer that provides value for the future” (Bullen, 2010). Rather than a uniformity of modern construction, cityscapes are delineated with older architectural styles relevant to the local community. Instead of pure historic preservation, where a sense of distortion results from an overload of historic architecture, there should be a sense of the contemporary as well. When done effectively, these projects can create a unique environment, one of subtle anachronism and style. (Bullen, 2009; Bullen, 2010; Hein, 2008; Langston et al., 2008; Nasser, 2003)

Historic buildings also tend to contain materials that are no longer available or are of much higher quality than are available today. Some stone and slates are no longer quarried, whereas old growth wood stock will continue to resist rot and insects much better than their modern cousins. These materials are one of the main reasons why the buildings are still around: the timelessness of the structures makes them anchor points for the community. These aged materials give the building and community authenticity that creates a unique civic character. (Bullen, 2009; Bullen, 2010; Hein, 2008; Langston et al., 2008; Ligibel, 2011; Nasser, 2003; Thornton, 2011) Locals may not realize the current program of a historic building, but they will still know the site for its material presence. This makes them ideal for AR, as constantly changing programs does not change the character of the overall site. The inclusion of these materials, and the insertion into these anchor points, lend a credibility and sense of status to the program installed within.


Sustainable development meets the needs of the future without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs; it is the capacity of the environment to accept demands without irreversible or otherwise unacceptable change. As Thornton notes:

Many newly green technologies can be imbedded in our historic buildings in unobtrusive or invisible ways. Also, the adaptive reuse for new interiors of otherwise historic shells opens the door for application of the entire range of sustainable materials in any new layer of construction. This is an area where the preservation and gGreen communities' interests clearly overlap. The preservation dictum of saving as much “existing fabric” of the original building as possible supports the green goals of reuse [while designing] to reuse large pieces of existing structures provides greener cost, structure, and durability arguments that parallel the philosophical one of saving historical material as a record. (Thornton, 2011)

The sustainability movement has many facets across fields as diverse as ecology and energy, to biology and manufacturing. The encompassing goal is to slow down or even reverse the damage the human race has done to the planet; to leave the next generation with an improved environmental legacy. To this end, many organizations and governments have begun to consider more sustainable options to current practices. (Bullen, 2009; Bullen, 2010; Love, 2009; Nasser, 2003; Thornton, 2011)

There is ubiquitous agreement among researchers that adaption can make a significant contribution to the sustainability of existing buildings. Here, Langston makes a good point, “From a sustainability perspective, it is preferable to minimize new additions to the [already built stock], but at the same time to remove those layers of poorer quality stock that absorb excessive operating resources” (Langston et al., 2008). There is growing support that adaptive reuse satisfies a key concept of sustainability by extending the useful life of existing buildings. This reuse lowers costs in relation to materials, transport, energy, and pollution when compared with the erection of new buildings. The use of adaptation, however, requires clients and designers to shift their thinking from focusing on rationalistic consumption to environmental protection. (Bullen, 2009; Bullen, 2010; Love, 2009; Nasser, 2003; Thornton, 2011)


The Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design breaks down the immense scope of sustainability into seven topics: Sustainable Sites (SS), Water Efficiency (WE), Energy and Atmosphere (EA), Materials and Resources (MR), Indoor Environmental Quality (IEQ), Innovation in Design (ID), and Regional Priority (RP). For all Adaptive Reuse projects, two of these topics play crucial roles due to the site's embodied energy: Energy and Atmosphere, and Materials and Resources. (The U.S. Green Building Council [USGBS], 2009)

The immense energy used to create an existing structure is considered as stored within it, and that embodied energy represents a substantial portion of a building's carbon footprint. Love notes that, “the existing building stock has the greatest potential to lower the environmental load significantly within the next 20 years. [The adaptation process] reaps the benefit of the embodied energy and quality of the original building” (Love, 2009). If that energy can be transferred from one program to another, the footprint will not grow. It is in this energy reuse that proprietors have the most potential for economic gain, because they will not have to pay for the enormous construction, demolition, and waste disposal costs associated with new construction. (Bullen, 2010; Love, 2009; the USGBC, 2009; Thornton, 2011)

To remove a historic masonry structure is an awesome undertaking creating tons of debris. In addition, new construction will incur even more manpower, machinery, and transportation expenses while also using up new resources. Rather than extracting raw materials during demolition or from the environment, developers can leave the basic structure and fabric of the building intact. This process alone reaps vast sums of the embodied energy. If new resources are needed, rapidly renewable materials like bamboo could be used; other resources such as materials with high recycled content or which were produced locally to reduce transportation costs could also be incorporated. (Hein, 2008; Langston, et al., 2008; Langston, 2010; the USGBC, 2009; Thornton, 2011)

LEED addresses these issues with its Energy and Atmosphere (EA) and Materials and Resources (MR) credits. These sections identify ways to reduce non-renewable energy costs, harvest embodied energy, limit waste, decrease resource use, increase onsite-renewable energy and reduce the building's contribution to climate change through chemical management. An AR building could be ranked as LEED Certified solely by receiving the points for EA and MR. LEED-certified projects consume less energy, have less effect on the environment, and promote better conditions for their occupants. Cost analysis for LEED projects will almost always have higher first costs, but also much higher long term savings, for both the proprietor's financial expenses and on the building's environmental impact. (Hein, 2008, Langston et al., 2008, Langston, 2010, Love, 2009, Thornton 2011)

The advantages of AR in terms of preservation and sustainability are immense, but there are inherent disadvantages that must be addressed and mitigated. There is an inherent “limbo” period of non-use, AR can cause greater suburban sprawl and gentrification, and also requires in-depth issue analysis.


Bullen notes that, “Retention of older commercial buildings has commonly been regarded as a barrier to progress and a hindrance to the regeneration of older urban areas” (Bullen, 2009). This means that urban space is left without practical use until a developer can conveniently reuse the site. Love states that, “[Because] of the difficulties in ascertaining necessary timeframes for adaptation and institutional barriers, owners of older buildings often see no benefit in adapting buildings to green standards” (Love, 2009). Additionally, developers are not bothering to maintain or update their historic sites in case those updates become redundant. Finally, Nasser observes that, “It is the age of the building stock, coupled with changes in function and economic influence through time, which leads to change in the urban landscape” (Nasser, 2003); if a building is significantly old, reuse is historic preservation; if it is recently vacant, developers are more willing to improve it. The time between a building's age as old and new is a “limbo” period in which developers and the community are all disinterested.

Urban Sprawl and Gentrification

Adaptive Reuse programs revitalize downtown areas by converting older, economically distressed, or historically significant buildings to apartments, live/work units, or visitor-serving facilities. This reduces vacant space and preserves the downtown area's architectural and cultural significance, acting as a catalyst in prompting investment in major developments. Bullen observes that, “The boom that occurred in converting empty office buildings to residential lofts breathed new life into downtown Los Angeles at a time when it was urgently needed.” (Bullen, 2009) Reuse of redundant commercial buildings as a regeneration strategy has become a popular approach with an array of municipal authorities. In spite of the apparent positive outcome of AR programs, there is a risk of achieving environmental and economic benefit to the detriment of social equality, particularly the exclusion of low-cost housing. (Bullen, 2009)

Accrued uniformity is increasingly evident, particularly in the proliferation of standardized hotel, restaurant, and streetscape architecture. Consequently, local cultures are losing their local identities. Traditional historic places are undergoing a reinterpretation of their cultural heritage by responding to the commercial forces of consumer demand. Local vernacular history and architecture are important dimensions of civic places, strengthening local identity, contributing to investment, and retaining communities. Nasser stipulates that, “Physically, [urban conservation] is linked to building preservation and the type of new development to ensure that a town's past, its present, and its future combine to create a recognizable unit, so that its growth can be seen and felt to be continuous” (Nasser, 2003). This involves seeking to improve old environments by bringing them into modern use. Social objectives are often neglected: these concern the users, local community, and the urban population. The zoning restrictions that conservation areas have may cause the expansion of new development in peripheral areas of the town, shifting with it the urban core and central business district (Nasser, 2003).

The exclusion of low-cost housing, combined with the outward movement of development and urban cores, leads to gentrification. As AR projects require large upfront costs, developers try to get their money back faster with large rental fees. Additionally, the jobs have either moved farther away, costing more to get there, or have left altogether, leaving an unemployed local populace. This increased rent and increased occupational hardship distress the economy, forcing the relocation of those unable to cope. Gentrification issues can be mitigated by AR projects devoted to lower-income residents or by incentivizing proprietors to help the community survive.

As a balance to these issues, developers and communities must also look at the growing demand of public infrastructure; such as water, gas, sewage and drainage. AR projects can relieve demands on local authorities to extend infrastructure and to reclaim natural landscapes for sprawling urban development. Langston and his fellows note, “Older buildings are often in advantageous locations in city centers and close to transport making reuse (where appropriate) more viable” (Langston et al., 2008).

Many other AR projects are located on industrial brownfield developments. These sites often contain underutilized rail lines, which could be converted into light rail transportation for local residents. In this case, the AR project would not only make use of local infrastructure, but potentially add a vibrant new asset to the community. This increased transportation availability and long-distance travel capability offer unique and innovative means to curb the effects of gentrification.

Issues Facing Developers

Bullen states the problem quite clearly, “Adaptive reuse of older commercial buildings, particularly in countries such as the United States, has been regarded by building owners and developers as uneconomic” (Bullen, 2009). Significant challenges exist in developing adaptation strategies because of uncertainties in climate change, difficulties in ascertaining timeframes for adaptation, and institutional barriers. Owners of older buildings often see no benefit in adapting buildings to green standards until a new use is found, choosing merely to stabilize the structure from further deterioration. However, the building may require sustainable adaption before a new use can be considered. This catch-22 situation compounds developers' difficulties. These developers need to be incentivized toward AR; they need tools and guides to help them determine when AR strategies should be utilized.

To be effective, theorists argue that conservation must be based on efficient use and economic viability. These two qualities are interdependent; the economic viability of a building depends on the use to which it can be put for a reasonable cost. The use of adaptation requires clients and designers to re-examine how their facilities are to be used and requires them to embrace whole-life costing and the use of innovative materials and technologies. Additionally, new construction or renovations on the adapted site can help with the sustainability standards. These new facilities could contain wastewater treatment areas, green roofs, renewable energy devices or other attributes, which could mitigate issues with the main building. Proprietors can research buildings where adaptation has been successful, thus providing a precedent on which to base decisions. (Bullen, 2009)

When evaluating projects and facilities, it is important to take a holistic view. John Elkington proposed the triple bottom line concept. This approach demands consideration of financial, social, and environmental parameters, also known as the ‘3Ps' of profit, people, and places. A fourth parameter of ethics would help prevent gentrification through tenant gouging and give preservationists a tool to combat greedy developers. According to Langston, “In order to find a balance between the interests of developers, property owners and preservation advocates, stakeholder involvement is critical” (Langston et al., 2008).

Bullen makes note that, “in most cases, it is the market that sets [the relative costs of reuse versus demolition and new build], even though such an assessment may be based on incomplete information with no consideration given toward externalities.” (Bullen, 2010) Declining commercial and operating performance is a critical issue that must be dealt with throughout the building's life cycle, oftentimes resulting in decisions to simply demolish and redevelop. The decision to demolish is premature if it ignores the residual utility and value of buildings that could be optimized with AR. When examining an array of building options, the building condition, scope of refit, overall cost saving, and the value of the site all should be considered for the purposes of a cost-benefit analysis. This analysis should closely examine the following issues: the building's structural layout and its capacity to accommodate required spaces and functions; the current energy efficiency; the building's potential for meeting zoning requirements; the condition of utilities and their capacity for modification; the presence of hazardous materials; and the convenience and safety of the building's location. Proprietors need to consider buildings' performance requirements before costs. This approach allows for qualitative analysis before quantitative, permitting AR a greater initial consideration. (Bullen, 2010)

Case Study Set One: Adaptive Reuse for Historic Preservation

Two examples show adaptive reuse primarily used for historic preservation. The Carnegie Library was an important aspect of Ann Arbor and the University's growth and Boston's Old State House is a relic from the nation's birth. Each project approached the rehabilitation differently however.

First, a clear case of façadism, University of Michigan's North Quad. In this case, the auxiliary components of the building were already out of place, so the saving of a single piece of the original historic building, while frowned upon, was justified. The architects designed around this piece rather than with it, however, and therefore the unique meld of past and present is lost. On either side of the saved façade, new materials and new designs stand out to frame the portal, depriving it of its entire context. While it still maintains its inherent function, its architectural beauty has been demolished with the rest of the structure. This is often the case with façadism; while the physical form is still present, the context and link have been removed. Examples such as this are Adaptive Reuse at its most ineffectual.

In Boston's Old State House, past and present are kept absolutely separate physically, but occupy the same space experientially. It truly is a unique experience to exit the modern subway and look back to behold an 18th-century structure. The historic site has been meticulously restored as an historic museum, while also allowing for the contemporary passing of time and the inevitability of change. While this may not be the best use economically, it does adaptively reuse the site; what was once a seat of government has become a contextual venue for the dissemination of knowledge. While there are examples of more diverse adaptive reuse programs, the Old State House is one of the best examples of AR for historic preservation that creates a uniquely anachronistic experience.

Adaptive reuse for historic preservation is about retaining the old, not just alongside the new, but in conjunction with it. The examples above show two different approaches to this end. North Quad preserves the past within the present, while the old State House creates the experience of a coincidental past and present.

Heritage preservation is one of the most ubiquitous reasons buildings are considered for adaptive reuse, but it is not the only one. Some structures may have simply outlived their programs, but do not have any cultural or historic value. These buildings often can be used as a way to earn LEED credits.

Case Study Set Two: Adaptive Reuse for LEED Certification

These two case studies focus on Adaptive Reuse not for historical reasons, but for sustainability. Both of these projects used LEED in order to pursue sustainable principles, but the variations and motives behind the reuse differ considerably.

For PNC, sustainability is a core value, and Gensler was committed to fulfilling that request. LEED is one of the easiest and most recognized methods for achieving sustainability goals. In this case, the AR process realized and blocked-off significant points, while PNC's sustainability requirements necessitated attaining several more. The client's commitment to the LEED goals, coupled with the firms design capabilities, allowed for a successful AR project with a Gold Certified rating.

The Koll Airport Professional Building project's goal was the successful reuse of a failed facility. It was the firm's choice to accomplish this through LEED strategies. Without the commitment of the client, the realization of the firm's sustainability objectives faltered. LPA is widely known for its sustainable practices and designs; for this case to only just reach Certified is a reflection on underlying factors. The client company's lack of sustainability requirements meant they were not driven to pursue additional LEED credits. Designs beyond the AR of the facility were all LPA's decisions. The contradiction behind LPA's customary performance and this study's ranking shows how much client engagement is essential.

Two projects both using Adaptive Reuse and both employing LEED strategies, but one is highly successful and the other just so. AR is a great method to achieve LEED certification, but it cannot be the only one. These cases demonstrate how reuse can be a great asset to sustainable objectives, but they also show how client/owner involvement and commitment can affect the overall success of the project.


Proprietors are frequently faced with decisions about whether to reuse or construct. Too often, these decisions are reasoned with purely financial analysis. There are other issues that should bear on the final choice, including environmental and social effects. These impacts can be more effectively analyzed with a qualitative approach. In order to lessen the confused and present-day view of Adaptive Reuse processes, it is critical that a developmental understanding of how to prioritize potential AR projects is used. This process should maximize the effective allocation of resources while conserving our national heritage and propose a methodology for enhancing the contributions of our built stock. AR makes better use of the facilities we already have and the residual life embedded in them by addressing sustainability and preservation with respect to gentrification and community reaction.


Bullen, P. A., & Love, P. E. D. (2009). Residential regeneration and adaptive reuse: Learning from the experiences of Los Angeles. Structural Survey, 27(5), 351–360.

Bullen, P. A., & Love, P. E. D. (2010). The rhetoric of adaptive reuse or reality of demolition: Views from the field. Cities, 27(4), 215–224.

Hein, M. F., & Houck, K. D. (2008). Construction challenges of adaptive reuse of historical buildings in Europe. International Journal of Construction Education and Research, 4(2), 115–131.

Langston, C., Wong, F. K. W., Hui, E. C. M., & Shen, L. (2008). Strategic assessment of building adaptive reuse opportunities in Hong Kong. Building and Environment, 43(10), 1709–1718.

Langston, C., & Shen, L. (2010). Adaptive reuse potential: An examination of differences between urban and nonurban projects. Facilities, 28(1/2), 6–16.

Ligibel, Ted. “Introduction to Historic Preservation.” Eastern Michigan University. Fall 2011. Lecture

Love, P. E. D., & Bullen, P. A. (2009). Toward the sustainable adaptation of existing facilities. Facilities, 27(9/10), 357–367.

Nasser, N. (2003). Planning for urban heritage places: Reconciling conservation, tTourism, and sustainable development. Journal of Planning Literature, 467–479.

The U.S. Green Building Council. (2009). LEED reference guide for green building design and construction. The U.S. Green Building Council.

Thornton, B. J. (2011). The greenest building (is the one that you don't build!): Effective techniques for sustainable adaptive reuse. Journal of Green Building, 6(1), 1–7.

©2012 Chris Smallwood
Originally published as a part of the 2012 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Vancouver, Canada



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