Documenting Change: Lesson Six – College of Design – 38°84° the power of place
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Documenting Change: Lesson Six

Adaptive Reuse

by Emily Bergeron

“The greenest building is the one that is already built.” Carl Elephante

 At times, preservationists have been criticized for protesting too strenuously against any change to historic resources. This tradition dates back to John Ruskin, who said, “No changing of place at a hundred miles an hour will make us one whit stronger, or happier, or wiser. There was always more in the world than man could see, walked they ever so slowly; they will see it no better for going fast. The really precious things are thought and sight, not pace. It does a bullet no good to go fast; and a man, if he be truly a man, no harm to go slow; for his glory is not at all in going, but in being.” In the past, this may have been true; however, it’s not necessarily a fair characterization of preservation today. Change is not only unavoidable; it can also bring benefits. By preserving and using the existing building stock, we can protect cultural values expressed through the built environment while still using what exists for development, giving buildings a new life and prolonging their lifespan.

Adaptive reuse is a form of historic preservation that recognizes the importance of more than protecting prestigious, monumental, or historically significant buildings. Old, sometimes abandoned, facilities exist across the country. Adaptive reuse allows us to breathe life into these structures – from warehouses to lighthouses – and give them a new purpose. “Adaptive reuse” is the process of repurposing an existing structure for a new use, an essential practice when you consider that structures often outlive their functions.

Building changes can involve major internal space reorganization and service upgrades or replacement. Alternatively, adaptive reuse may require minor restoration works where nothing changes except the building’s functional use. When applied to historic buildings like the Reynold’s Building (now the Gray Design Building), it retains the structure and conserves the effort and skill of the original builders.[1] as well as the place’s architectural, social, cultural, and historical values.[2] Reuse also speaks to the pillars of sustainability in that it improves material and resource efficiency (environmental sustainability), reduces costs (economic sustainability), and retains community infrastructure (social sustainability).

Good adaptive reuse respects and retains a place’s character-defining features while adding a new layer creates future value. With this, abandoned armories become shopping centers; churches turn into restaurants, schools into senior living communities, or tobacco warehouses into a College of Design. Adaptive reuse has been used for low-income housing, community centers, and mixed-use complexes. In 2040 approximately two-thirds of the global building stock will be buildings that exist today.[3]Understanding how adaptive reuse helps maintain cultural heritage by using historic architecture and restoring significant sites that might otherwise be left to deteriorate or be demolished, replaced with new buildings or parking lots. Saving buildings that are important to communities preserves a site and can be an essential part of a place’s social capital – providing economic, cultural, and social benefits to community members. This practice also helps to address sprawl – the creeping, unrestricted expansion of urban areas. Developers seeking sites for new construction are sometimes forced to use land outside city centers, increasing infrastructure costs and creating negative environmental impacts such as air and water pollution, dangerous traffic patterns, and social isolation.

Adaptive reuse, compared to new construction, can have financial advantages and cost savings. This recycling option generally uses more labor than building materials. While materials costs have increased significantly, labor costs have not risen at the same rate. This practice also eliminates the need for demolition costs. And, where specific standards are met for historic preservation, federal, state, and local tax incentives can reduce the cost of repurposing a building. New construction can also take longer than many adaptive reuse projects. Perhaps most importantly, communities benefit from and appreciate maintaining these buildings, which are important markers of history and culture. It is also an excellent strategy to promote sustainability, as reusing existing buildings eliminates some of the embodied energy and carbon costs associated with new construction.

Sustainable development requires the preservation, reuse, and “greening” of existing buildings to help reduce energy consumption and carbon emissions. Recall from an earlier module that old buildings contain embodied energy (i.e., the fuel and labor it costs to produce them – making and shipping the materials to assembling them on site). Adaptive reuse retains this energy by circumventing demolition and construction.

The US government estimates that approximately 1 billion square feet of existing building stock are demolished and replaced each year—adaptive reuse rather than new construction results in less debris in landfills and a healthier environment. Demolition profoundly impacts landfills; construction and demolition debris constitutes about two-thirds of all non-industrial solid waste in the US (EPA, 2010). The average building demolition results in 155 pounds of waste per square foot. A new construction project yields 3.9 pounds of waste per square foot of building area.[4] Even when materials are recycled, millions of tons of debris yearly end up in landfills. A 2004 Brookings Institution study indicated that if we continue with national development trends, by 2030, we will have demolished and rebuilt nearly one-third of our entire building stock — 82 billion square feet.[5] The energy required to accomplish this would power the state of California – 37 million people – for a decade.

Adaptive reuse occurs along a spectrum. Levels of intervention can be close to traditional historic preservation, maintaining as much of the structure as possible using minimally invasive mechanical, electrical, and plumbing (MEP) upgrades and adaptations required to meet new building codes. These alterations are generally considered appropriate based on the standards created by the National Park Service.[6] This level does not allow the flexibility of using new, efficient materials while acknowledging the structure’s history. At the other end of the spectrum exists integration and façadism. The former involves building around an original design, preserving the structure, and encompassing it inside a new building. The latter maintains only the building’s facade while demolishing the bulk of the rest to replace it with a modern structure while preserving the street view. Preservationists generally favor neither of these interventions. Somewhere between these two extremes lies adaptive reuse like that undertaken in the Gray Design Building.

It is important to note that only some buildings are well-suited for adaptive reuse. Developers mustnavigate everything from building hazards to legal red tape. Problems may arise in meeting modern safety standards, land-use and zoning laws, and building codes, such as a lack of accessibility compliant with the Americans With Disabilities Act. Older buildings may also contain hazards such as asbestos, lead paint, and mold. These issues can be addressed during construction but must be considered in determining the feasibility of adaptive reuse.

interior Gray Design Building

The former Reynolds Building, a 20th-century tobacco warehouse, will become the new home for the UK College of Design.

Jane Jacobs, an activist known for her influence on urban studies, sociology, and economics in her book The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961), argued that “urban renewal” and “slum clearance” failed to meet the needs of city dwellers. She sought instead to protect neighborhoods from the wrecking ball, recognizing the importance of architecture to a community. Jacobs stated, “Old ideas can sometimes use new buildings. New ideas must use old buildings.” Adaptive reuse allows communities to use old buildings for new ideas while also making a significant impact in meeting sustainability goals.

For more on adaptive reuse, see:

  • Aigwi, Esther & Duberia, Ahmed & Nwadike, Amarachukwu. (2023). Adaptive Reuse of Existing Buildings as a Sustainable Tool for Climate Change Mitigation within the Built Environment. Sustainable Energy Technologies and Assessments. 56. 10.1016/j.seta.2022.102945.
  • Berkovitz, Nina. New Life for White Elephants: Adapting Historic Buildings for New Uses, Washington: National Trust for Historic Preservation, 1996.
  • Bottero, Marta & Datola, Giulia & Fazzari, Daniele & Ingaramo, Roberta. (2022). Re-Thinking Detroit: A Multicriteria-Based Approach for Adaptive Reuse for the Corktown District. Sustainability. 14. 8343. 10.3390/su14148343.
  • Boyle, Jayne. Guide to Tax-Advantaged Rehabilitation, Washington: National Trust for Historic Preservation, 2002.
  • Brand, Stewart, How Buildings Learn: What Happens After They’re Built. London: Penguin Books, 1995.
  • Bullen, P.A. and Love, P.E.D. (2011), “Adaptive reuse of heritage buildings,” Structural Survey, Vol. 29 No. 5, pp. 411-421.
  • Bullen, P.A. and Love, P.E.D. (2011). Adaptive reuse of heritage buildings: Sustaining an icon or eyesore.
  • Dedek, Peter, Historic Preservation for Designers. New York: Fairchild Books, 2014.
  • Della Spina, Lucia. (2021). Cultural Heritage: A Hybrid Framework for Ranking Adaptive Reuse Strategies. Buildings. 11. 132. 10.3390/buildings11030132.
  • Grabar, Henry. “What If Old Buildings Are Greener than New Ones?” Slate Magazine, 6 Dec. 2021,
  • Hutchins, Nigel, Restoring Old Houses, New York: Firefly Books, 1997.
  • Jackson, Jason. “Neighborhood Revitalization through Culture, Community, and Creativity | Jason Jackson | Tedxmemphis.” YouTube, 20 Sept. 2016,
  • Kitchen, Judith, The Old-Building Owners Manual, Columbus: Ohio Historical Society, 1983.
  • Merlino, Kathryn (2014). “[Re]Evaluating Significance: The Environmental and Cultural Value in Older and Historic Buildings,” The Public Historian, Vol. 36, No. 3, pp. 70-85
  • National Trust for Historic Preservation (2016). The Greenest Building: Quantifying the Environmental Value of Building Reuse,
  • Nelson, Arthur (2004). “Toward a New Metropolis: The Opportunity to Rebuild America” (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution), available at
  • Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for the Treatment of Historic Properties,
  • Weaver, Martin, Conserving Buildings: A Manual of Techniques and Materials, New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1997.

[1] Bullen, P.A. and Love, P.E.D. (2011), “Adaptive reuse of heritage buildings,” Structural Survey, Vol. 29 No. 5, pp. 411-421.

[2] McCoy, Nancy & Latham, Derek. (2001). Creative Reuse of Buildings. APT Bulletin. 32. 77. 10.2307/1504746.

[3] Lockwood, Charles. “Building the Green Way.” Harvard Business Review, 25 Aug. 2014,; “Why the Built Environment?” Architecture 2030,

[4] Sahabi, Ali. “Structural Retrofits Reduce the Carbon Footprint (Part 2 of 3) – USGBC-La.” USGBC, 25 Feb. 2023,

[5] Nelson, Arthur (2004). “Toward a New Metropolis: The Opportunity to Rebuild America” (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution).

[6] National Park Service. Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for the Treatment of Historic Properties, available at