Giving Old Buildings New Life Through Adaptive Reuse

repurposed building
Jackie Craven

Adaptive reuse, or adaptive re-use architecture, is the process of repurposing buildings that have outlived their original purposes for different uses or functions while at the same time retaining their historic features. An increasing number of examples can be found around the world. A closed school may be converted into condominiums. An old factory may become a museum. A historic electric building can become apartments. A rundown church finds new life as a restaurant, or a restaurant may become a church! Sometimes called property rehabilitation, turnaround, or historic redevelopment, the common element no matter what you call it is how the building is used.

Adaptive Reuse Basics

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

" 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

The Industrial Revolution of the 19th century and the great commercial building boom of the 20th century created an abundance of large, masonry buildings. From sprawling brick factories to elegant stone skyscrapers, this commercial architecture had definitive purposes for their time and place. As society continued to change—from the decline of the railroads after the 1950s interstate highway system to the way business is conducted with the 1990s expansion of the Internet—these buildings were left behind. In the 1960s and 1970s, many of these old buildings were simply torn down. Architects like Philip Johnson and citizens like Jane Jacobs became activists for preservation when buildings like the old Penn Station—a 1901 Beaux-Arts building designed by McKim, Mead, and White in New York City—was demolished in 1964. The movement to codify the preservation of architecture, legally protecting historic structures, was born in America in the mid-1960s and slowly adopted city-by-city across the land. Generations later, the idea of preservation is much more ingrained in society and now reaches beyond commercial properties changing use. The idea philosophy moved into residential architecture when old wooden homes would be transformed into country inns and restaurants.

Rationale for Reusing Old Buildings

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:

  • Materials. 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 strength and quality of old brick?
  • Sustainability. The process of adaptive reuse is inherently green. The construction materials are already produced and transported onto the site.
  • Culture. Architecture is history. Architecture is memory.

Beyond Historic Preservation

Any building that has been through the process of being named "historic" is usually legally protected from demolition, although laws change locally and from state to state. The Secretary of the Interior provides guidelines and standards for the protection of these historic structures, falling into four treatment categories: Preservation, Rehabilitation, Restoration, and Reconstruction. All historic buildings do not have to be adapted for reuse but, more importantly, a building does not have to be designated as historic for it to be rehabilitated and adapted for reuse. Adaptive reuse is a philosophical decision of rehabilitation and not a government mandate.

"Rehabilitation is defined as the act or process of making possible a compatible use for a property through repair, alterations, and additions while preserving those portions or features which convey its historical, cultural, or architectural values."

Examples of Adaptive Reuse

One of the most high-profile examples of adaptive reuse is in London, England. The Gallery of Modern Art for the Tate Museum, or Tate Modern, was once the Bankside Power Station. It was redesigned by the Pritzker Prize-winning architects Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron. Likewise, in the U.S. Heckendorn Shiles Architects converted the Ambler Boiler House, a power-generating station in Pennsylvania, into a modern office building.

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 performance and design studios at National Sawdust in Brooklyn, New York, were created within an old sawmill. The Refinery, a luxury hotel in NYC, used to be a Garment District millinery.

Capital Rep, a 286-seat theater in Albany, New York, used to be a downtown Grand Cash Market supermarket. The James A. Farley Post Office in New York City is the new Pennsylvania Station, a major train station hub. Manufacturers Hanover Trust, a 1954 bank designed by Gordon Bunshaft, is now chic New York City retail space. Local 111, a 39-seat chef-owned restaurant in the upper Hudson Valley, used to be a gas station in the small town of Philmont, New York.

Adaptive reuse has become more than a preservation movement. It has become a way to save memories and a way to save the planet. The 1913 Industrial Arts Building in Lincoln, Nebraska held state fair memories in the minds of locals when it was slated for demolition. A hearty group of involved local citizens attempted to convince new owners to repurpose the building. That battle was lost, but at least the outer structure was saved, in what is called façadism. The will to reuse may have begun as a movement based on emotion, but now the concept is considered the standard operating procedure. Schools like the University of Washington in Seattle have included programs like the Center for Preservation and Adaptive Reuse into their College of Built Environments curriculum. Adaptive reuse is a process based on a philosophy that has not only become a field of study, but also a firm's expertise. Check out working for or doing business with architecture firms who specialize in repurposing existing architecture.


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Your Citation
Craven, Jackie. "Giving Old Buildings New Life Through Adaptive Reuse." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, Craven, Jackie. (2021, February 16). Giving Old Buildings New Life Through Adaptive Reuse. Retrieved from Craven, Jackie. "Giving Old Buildings New Life Through Adaptive Reuse." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 28, 2023).