What is adaptive reuse (and how can it create a sustainable built environment)?

Posted on: 16 October, 2023

Adaptive reuse has emerged as a sustainable alternative to demolition for the built environment. Here’s how it works.

The Göbekli Tepe is an archaeological site that was inhabited from 9500 BCE – over 10,000 years ago. Today, it has been partially excavated, and is located in Southeast Turkey. By many estimates, it’s the oldest man-made structure in the world.

While a particularly unique example, the Göbekli Tepe reflects the longevity of historic architecture, which was often designed to be used for hundreds, if not thousands, of years.

The same cannot be said for most buildings in the 21st century. For steel structures, such as bridges, you can expect a lifespan of 100-150 years. For concrete and commercial buildings, the lifespan is less than 100, and often as little as 60 years.

Amid the launch of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, the longevity and lifecycle of modern buildings and the process of redevelopment have come under greater scrutiny.

As a major contributor to global carbon emissions, the built environment needs to play a central role in the push to net zero through the adoption of more sustainable alternatives to traditional demolition and redevelopment. And with recent instances such as the RAAC concrete crisis and the rejected Marks and Spencer (M&S) Oxford Street demolition putting ageing buildings in the limelight, new solutions are emerging.

One solution that has proven popular in sustainability discourse is adaptive reuse.

What is adaptive reuse?

Adaptive reuse is the process where existing buildings are reused in a different capacity to their original purpose. Buildings that undergo this process are usually at the end of their lifespan. Reusing them allows elements of their appearance, design, cultural heritage and historic significance to be maintained, while serving a new function and preventing them from being demolished in processes that consume a significant amount of energy.

Adaptive reuse vs retrofitting

For example, before the decision to demolish the building was proposed, M&S had explored the possibility of retrofitting their Oxford Street Marble Arch store. This would have meant modernising and optimising the original building to be more energy efficient while still fulfilling its original purpose. If this was an adaptive reuse project, the Marble Arch store would have been repurposed for another usage, such as a theatre or for housing.

Learn more: To retrofit or not to retrofit: what’s the debate around the M&S Oxford Street demolition?

Why adaptive reuse projects are growing in popularity: 4 key benefits

It’s been said that three-quarters of the infrastructure that will exist by 2050 has yet to be built – a worrying statistic when you consider the amount of energy creating (and demolishing) buildings produces. In the case of the aforementioned M&S Oxford Street redevelopment, campaigners claimed as much as 40,000 tonnes of CO2 would be produced by the project.

As with retrofitting, reusing a building for a new purpose is a far more sustainable alternative than choosing to demolish and redevelop the existing site. While constructing a new building might be more energy efficient, it can take 10-80 years to offset the amount of energy consumed in its construction.

There are other benefits of adaptive reuse projects over demolition, including:

1. Maintaining cultural heritage

One of the chief arguments against the M&S Oxford Street campaign was the loss of a historic building that, while denied listed status, carried cultural significance. Adaptive reuse allows historical buildings and cultural landmarks to be maintained while they serve a new purpose.

2. Reduced construction costs

Adaptive reuse projects can often be significantly cheaper for a company than having to demolish and rebuild from the ground up. What’s more, adapting a building for a new purpose can be faster, too. You’ll also circumvent many of the legal, regulatory and political challenges of demolition projects (as Marks and Spencer experienced), depending on the location of the existing building.

3. Optimised energy consumption

It’s not just in the construction process that adaptive reuse is more sustainable than demolition and redevelopment. When repurposing a historic building, you also have the opportunity to optimise the structure with environmentally friendly heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) systems that make it more energy efficient and reduce running costs.

4. Helps combat urban sprawl

Instead of having to seek a new construction site further afield, adaptive reuse gives builders more choice and allows them to choose from existing sites that help reduce urban sprawl and offers them geographical advantages.

The drawbacks of adaptive reuse strategies

While building reuse can offer benefits over traditional demolition projects, this process isn’t without its challenges and potential obstacles.

  • Safety issues and hazards: Historic buildings that weren’t constructed to meet modern standards and regulations can have serious issues and potential safety hazards – with a case in point being the RAAC crisis. These can be costly and difficult to address.
  • Achieving environmental standards: Similarly, to bring a historic building up to modern sustainability and energy consumption standards can require significant upgrades and enhancements – all of which will increase the cost of your construction project.
  • Legal and regulatory challenges: While increasingly favoured as an alternative to demolition, any building reuse will require approval from the relevant authorities, and you may find adapting your building to existing laws a challenging process.

Learn more: The concrete crisis: what’s being done to address RAAC risks?

5 types of adaptive reuse (with examples)

Here are five different adaptive reuse strategies, along with real-world examples of how they’ve been implemented:

1. Facade

Facadism, or facadectomy, is a type of adaptive reuse where a building’s facade (front part or exterior) is preserved, while the rest, for example its inner structure, are demolished and modernised. While not a ‘true’ repurposing of a building in many people’s eyes, it’s often viewed as being better than simply demolishing a building entirely.

2. Integration

In an integration, a new structure is built around the existing building – the original structure is maintained but enclosed in the new site. One of the most famous examples of this is the Jægersborg Water Tower, Denmark, which was repurposed into student housing.

3. Renovation

Renovation is a form of adaptation that seeks to modernise and replace elements of buildings that are in poor condition whilst maintaining their core structure and appearance. A great example of this is the Schuurkensstraat in Ghent, Belgium – a house dating from the late 19th century that, while optimised with modern enhancements, retains its original appearance in its current function as a mixed-use building.

4. Infrastructure

Adaptive reuse has potential for large infrastructure as well as individual buildings. Take New York City’s famously repurposed railway, The High Line, which is now a park and a popular tourist attraction.

5. Heritage conservation/preservation

In perhaps the most comprehensive form of adaptive reuse, built heritage conservation involves maintaining a building’s materials, facade, integrity and structure while making minimal renovations in order to modernise it.

Final thoughts

The built environment is at the centre of the battle against climate change. While the construction process is one of the biggest contributors of manmade emissions, there’s a continuous demand for more infrastructure as the population grows and old, historical buildings reach the end of their lifespan.

All of this presents a conundrum for our sector, but far from being an insurmountable obstacle, we instead have an opportunity to influence change and drive sustainable practices. While it’s not a full proof solution, adaptive reuse is a viable alternative to demolition we should all be considering.

Sustainability isn’t a passing trend – it’s here to stay and is constantly evolving. If you want to inspire and action change in your career, UCEM’s MSc Innovation in Sustainable Built Environments will give you the skills you need, both now and in the future.

Find out more: MSc Innovation in Sustainable Built Environments – University College of Estate Management