Introduction: The Practice of Adaptive Re-Use

The term Adaptive reuse is from the architectural conservation field. It means reusing structurally sound buildings that are no longer inhabited. These buildings can either be modern vertical buildings incorporated with the latest technology no longer in use or those with heritage aesthetic features and intricate construction details. 

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Jiuli Workspace Creative Industry Center_Zhongrui Shao

It is a system of recycling buildings and reviving those that can no longer accommodate their program of use. In recent decades, adaptive reuse is a means of achieving sustainability. It concerts efforts on evaluating the potential of existing and outdated structures for reuse rather than demolishing and building anew.

There are records of buildings that have been adaptively re-used in the Ancient Far East, Classical Greece, and the Roman Empire. These efforts have allowed us to view the traces of the ancient universal past dating back to almost 4000 BC, even in the 21st century.   

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Pompeii Street_Viator

Other than the term ‘Adaptive Re-use’, it is also labelled as — conservation, restoration, preservation, or maintenance. These terms vary depending on the viewpoint of the type of work involved.

Architectural Integrity in Adaptive Reuse

Architectural integrity refers to the authentic existence of a structure with its complete original architectural features and structural details intact. It also includes the spatial qualities and the historical significance of the building identity with its location context. During a restoration process, there is a possibility for the structure’s architectural integrity to be negatively impacted. This is why the scope of changes is minimal in architectural conservation projects.

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Royal Opera House, Mumbai_OperaBase

Preserving the integrity of the building means ensuring the coherence of the aesthetic, functions, and significance of the built environment. This deliberate process also establishes significance for the historic structure. It also complements the surrounding urban fabric and contributes to its overall identity.

Evolving Forms of Adaptive Re-Use

Adaptive reuse of historic structures takes many forms. The building could be refurbished with a new function. Or a new design could be retrofitted to create a new form for the heritage structure. Many reasons could be the deciding factor for this. These changes should be minimal to avoid any loss to its architectural integrity.

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Budapest Railway Station, City Landmark_ World Nomads

For instance, after assessing the structural stability, the existing foundation, and load-bearing capacity, its structural modifications can be based on this. This ensures the safety of the occupants. During the process of repurposing, assess the layout and interior spaces for feasibility. In certain instances, adjustments to the design may be necessary to accommodate new functional requirements.

The building’s location and compatibility with the zone’s intended land use should be ascertained. This is because some zones might have special considerations or restrictions. The building’s repurposing can only reap benefits when it functionally contributes to its surroundings.

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Veronica’s Café in Bandra, Mumbai. Earlier was known as Jude Bakery_Conde Nast Traveller

In the case of retrofitting, for instance, the final design and aesthetics of the building should align with the design vision and branding image of the new use. These modifications should also respect the architectural integrity of the building. The re-branding of the historical building also opens a demand for its proposed use in the market. The valuation study and economic feasibility analysis can eventually determine the returns on investment.  

Case Studies: Adaptive Re-use

1 Binjiang Avenue, Shanghai

Under the ‘Adaptive Re-use’ concept, this project re-vitalizes the historic waterfront, which spans about 2500 m. The functionality concept of the project was keeping a human-centered design approach. It includes many architectural and restoration projects along its extent. 

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Binjiang Avenue – Revitalizing the Historic Riverfront Project_Fang Fang Tian

The avenue project focuses on the continuity of spaces, landscapes, and circulations that enhance the pedestrians’ recreation experience.  To preserve the memory of the riverfront, the architects kept the scratches and textures as a sensitive reflection of the site’s history. 

One of the projects along the waterfront included re-purposing a warehouse that was no longer in use to a contemporary art exhibition place. The warehouse has retrofitted structures that added to the contemporary visuals and enhanced the functionality for new use.

2 Documentation Center, Nuremberg

The intervention included a structure that pierced and opened into the existing heritage building. It is the new documentation building. The building is a deconstructivist glass and steel shaft that pierces the brick and stone structure. It displays a modern act of erasure. The architectural concept employed in this instance is a commentary on war.  

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Documentation Center_ Adaptable Travel

It is a dramatic gesture of splitting and opening the older belief systems of the built Nazi ideology. It is a symbol of destructing the beliefs and allows the visitor to view the depths of the old ideology with the new. The visitors can walk along the glass pathway with a dual view of the ideals set in the background of the old propaganda structure.

Challenges for Adaptive Re-use

It is important to note that each building is built considering the social value and economy of the period. For example, as Mumbai started to progress economically, the built forms began to represent modernist, sleek buildings that exhibited progress such as the Art Deco buildings. The built forms relied on the new industrial techniques, processes, and systems from the time.

While re-using a historic building, it is important to consider the values that promoted and shaped these forms. This is not specifically for the singular structures but also for the planned landscapes. E.g.: townships for the varied income groups in society and their built-form typologies.

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Restoration Process at Keneseth Eliyahoo Synagogue, Mumbai_Sanjana Mallya

One of the most common challenges is material use and management. The materials for many heritage structures are no longer sourced locally. This requires a shift in material use. The new material needs to be those that minimize negative environmental impact. Additionally, recycling the materials also poses a challenge.

Other than this, each detail in a heritage structure needs to be treated intricately. Straying from the guidelines can pose a risk by damaging the architectural features or altering the heritage integrity of the building. Adaptive reuse through heritage conservation strategies should not compromise the building’s original character. This could add to the complexity of the project.

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Peeling Plaster before the Restoration Process_StudioPKA

Heritage significance is a subjective topic, and there could be a spectrum of opinions from the local front. Whether it is the decision to carry out the adaptive reuse or demolish a building. It is necessary to find a common ground based on the stakeholders’ opinions and the most suitable solution. When stakeholders such as business owners, local organizations, local municipalities, and heritage conservationists are called into action, a holistic solution is derived.

Scope for Adaptive Re-use

Adaptive reuse of buildings allows us to creatively explore architectural spaces. For instance, many warehouse projects are converted into museums, exhibitions, or seminar spaces. It is a blend of sustainable solutions, creative marketing, and community engagement. It is also about a resourceful approach.

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Architect’s Office at Studio PKA_Niveditaa Gupta

It is required to identify the attributes that make the structure unique, its location, and the community needs to develop innovative and purposeful concepts. Architecture embodies past and present transformations’ aspirations, priorities, social values, and economic conditions. This includes futuristic coffee shops, soaring airport terminals with internal metro connectivity, an urban farm in a parking garage, or retail & dining in historic theatres.

These attempts contribute to keeping the existing shell of the structure whilst changing the functional systems and community engagement. All this while respecting the character and integrity of the building. These also contribute to emerging new, serviceable spaces and addressing societal issues. For instance, vertical farms create fresh green produce in industrial spaces, address food security, reduce food transportation and logistics issues, and give back a relevant function to an unused built space.

Adaptive Re-use as a Universal Responsibility 

It is important to note that adaptive reuse is just one of the channels for heritage preservation. Heritage preservation is mankind’s collective obligation. It requires collaborative efforts that include the government, heritage organizations, and knowledge hubs such as museums that raise awareness and professionals in the field. 

Mosque Complex, Samarkand – The City was a part of the Ancient Silk Road _ Lars&Shelly

It is important to note that regional history is a part of global history. These cultural links can help trace back the histories of our ancestors and early humans. These links explain human evolution and where we come from. Cultural continuity helps societies to become aware of their identity and heritage roots. 

As each heritage structure is unique, it is vital to consider its historical significance, values, and community associations. The community associations also foster a sense of ownership and pride in preserving shared cultural assets. These shared cultural assets link us back to the shared global history.


  • Plevoets, B. and Cleempoel, K. (2019). Adaptive Reuse of the Built Heritage – Concepts and Cases of an Emerging Discipline. London & New York: Routledge Taylor & Francis Group
  • Carroon, J. (2010). Sustainable Preservation: Greening Existing Buildings. New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons. 
  • Merlino, KR. (2018). Building Reuse: Sustainability, Preservation and the Value of Design. Seattle: University of Washington Press
  • Wong, L. (2023). Adaptive Reuse in Architecture – A Typological Index. Basel: Bikhäuser
  • Wong, L. (2017). Adaptive Reuse – Extending the Lives of Buildings. Basel: Bikhäuser

With a deep-seated passion for writing and a keen eye for built form design & details, Sanjana loves going into the depths of her topics, to reveal its essence. Expertise in creating multiple narratives and open to exploring more through engaging conversations & research. She believes that there is always room for new perspectives, and that learning never ends! Loves to go through other peoples’ creative thought processes through books!