What is Adaptive Reuse? Repurposing Old Buildings

Don't Tear it Down - Give Architecture a Second Chance

Adaptive Reuse, Riverside School now Riverside Condominiums
Adaptive Reuse, Riverside School now Riverside Condominiums. Photo ©2006 Jackie Craven

Adaptive reuse, or re-use, is the process of repurposing buildings—old buildings that have outlived their original purposes—for different uses or functions while retaining their historic features. A closed school, like Riverside School shown here, may be converted into condominiums. An old factory may become a a hotel. A rundown church may find new life as a restaurant... And a restaurant may become a church.

"Adaptive reuse is a process that changes a disused or ineffective item into a new item that can be used for a different purpose. Sometimes, nothing changes but the item's use."—Australian Department of the Environment and Heritage

Adaptive Reuse is a way to save a negleted building that might otherwise be demolished. The practice can also benefit the environment by conserving natural resources and minimizing the need for new materials.

Other Names:

  • Property rehabilitation
  • Turnaround and historic redevelopment

Why do it?

A natural inclination of builders and developers is to create a functional space at a reasonable cost. Often, the cost of rehabilitation and restoration is more than demolition and building new. Then why even think about adaptive reuse? Here are some reasons:

  • Seasoned building materials are not even available in today's world.
    Close-grained, first-growth lumber is naturally stronger and more rich looking than today's timbers. Does vinyl siding have the sustainability of old brick?
  • The process of adaptive reuse is inherently green.
    The construction materials are already produced and transported onto the site.
  • Architecture is history. Architecture is memory.

Examples of Adaptive Reuse:

  • The Refinery, a luxury hotel in NYC, used to be a Garment District millinery.
  • Capital Rep, a 286-seat theatre in Albany, New York, used to be a downtown Grand Cash Market supermarket.
  • The James A. Farley Post Office in New York City is becoming a train station.
  • Manufacturers Hanover Trust, a 1954 bank designed by Gordon Bunshaft, is now chic New York City retail space.
  • Mills and factories throughout New England, most notably in Lowell, Massachusetts, are being turned into housing complexes. Architecture firms such as Ganek Architects, Inc. have become specialists in adapting these buildings for reuse. Other factories, like Arnold Print Works (1860–1942) in Western Massachusetts, have been transformed into open-space museums like London's Tate Modern. Spaces like the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (MassMoCA) in the little town of North Adams seem wonderfully out of place but are not to be missed.
  • The 1913 Industrial Arts Building, Lincoln, Nebraska was slated for demolition until a group of local citizens became involved. The battle to repurpose the building was lost, but at least the outer structure was saved, in what is called façadism.
  • Local 111, a 39-seat chef-owned restaurant in Upstate New York's Hudson Valley, used to be a gas station in the small town of Philmont. You can't even smell the grease.

Source: Adaptive Reuse: Preserving our past, building our future, Commonwealth of Australia, 2004, p. 3 (PDF) [accessed September 11, 2015]