Re-Purpose is common sense that started at the beginning of civilization. The notion of building reuse was, as Powell described it, “a matter of common sense” (Powell, 1999). Reuse served the necessity to cope with developmental changes. The process of adaptive re-use was based on traditional norms and conventions. Naturally, the buildings were converted with no measuring specifications or bearing connotations. Countless cases have occurred throughout history, but in the case of Tanzania Old Boma in Mikindani survived for long periods from the 15th century till 1997.

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Concept of Adaptive Reuse Source:  ©

The building was restored in 1996 to adopt new functions as a hotel. The building constructed using coral rags set in lime mortar with a massive wall made up of undressed pieces is strong and stable (Kigadye, 2011). The original building was utilized as the governor’s residence. 

Though it is difficult to understand, when the concept of adaptive reuse was established as a recognized architectural approach, one of the first examples renowned for adaptive reuse of buildings was the Old City Hall in Boston (1865-1969). 

The historical building was preserved by the American heritage foundation and later converted to high-class restaurants and business offices. The success of the experience drew attention to hidden potentials in reusing old structures across the United States in the early 1970s and 1980s (AHF 2003).

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Critical Conservation of Structures (Source:  ©

The historic building is an asset that has an essential element of any building which is cultural and social significance as well as impact (Kigadye, 2011). According to Alananga and Lucian (2013) heritage also involves artistic value, historic value, spiritual value, and economic value.

  • The economic value of building heritage goods defines the extent to which people would be prepared to sacrifice something else to obtain. (Alananga & Lucian, 2013) . 
  • Heritage sites usually have local meanings and are associated with the heritage and identities of local communities living on or around them.
  • Local meanings attached to a site may differ from those of academics, national authorities, and the tourism industry
  • Loss of symbolic and economic values of sites for local communities often results in resistance to conservation efforts. 
  • This is why local values need to be respected and integrated into management planning, following the principle of the UNESCO Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expression (Chatelard, 2010). 

Ball (1999) and (Langston & Shen, 2007) suggest that investment in the adaptive reuse program will be a solution to re-energize and revitalize such neglected areas and therefore contribute to increasing living standards within the society and can attract investment and lead to economic growth. 

But in today’s times, adaptive reuse is infamous for being inefficient and complex. While design flexibility and modern amenities are the hallmark benefits touted by redevelopment. With this in mind, many developers avoid an adaptive reuse option before giving it fair consideration. In some cases, however, adaptive reuse is a feasible option with redevelopment having potential. 

Australian policies contain standard criteria to ensure that an adaptive reuse project has minimal impact on a building’s heritage values, such as: 

  • Discouraging “facadism” that is, gutting the building and retaining its facade
  • Requiring new work to be recognizable as contemporary, rather than a poor imitation of the original historic style of the building; and 
  • Seeking a current use for the building that is compatible with the immediate area 
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Demolition on an Urban Level ( Source:  ©

Demolition and redevelopment cannot achieve these benefits. Nonetheless, when project goals include a larger, modern facility, this may be something adaptive reuse cannot achieve.

On an urban scale level, dense cities consist of tall buildings and busy streets. Cities constantly evolve in response to a hybrid of pressures. With the constant change in demographics, the supply, and demand balance shifts. When faced with the decision to replace buildings that no longer meet the demands of the city, planners and developers must decide whether to demolish and redevelop or to adaptively reuse an existing structure. 

Therefore, a building is likely to experience functional or physical obsolescence hence causing it to become underutilized. However different changes occur to different property types. For example, see the image below.

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Adaptive Reuse of Industrial Property ( Source:  ©

Industrial Property Obsolescence | Adaptive Re-use

Many of our cities today have an oversupply of empty and underused industrial buildings. Industrial functions like production and delivery are affected by ongoing trends and technology. Hence change in the needs and functions of the capacity for industries to retain value and avoid obsolescence are limited. Therefore, replanning of industrial functions in a reduced space in the long term creates building surplus, hence promoting adaptive reuse.

In Atlanta, Georgia, there is an industrial complex that has faced many challenges. Originally, this collection of industrial buildings served as a productive cotton mill operation, but as the demographics of Atlanta changed, the old complex became obsolete. In 1996, the site was purchased by a construction company. 

For more than twelve years, they have been renovating the industrial buildings into residential lofts. The new residential community is called Stacks because the original smokestacks from its operational days have been retained, although they are no longer in use. The project is regarded as a success and residents have expressed their appreciation for the diversity among tenants and owners.

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Reuse of a Public Property, Adaptive Re-use ( Source:  ©

Public Property Obsolescence

Obsolescence in public buildings is a result of changing functional requirements. Public buildings include hospitals, museums, and many other government-run facilities, such as schools. There are a variety of functions that can be supported by these different building types. For example, a museum may need to adapt to new exhibition practices or a hospital may need to accommodate advanced equipment or research. 

There is however one difficulty they all share as public institutions. They all require the coordination of multiple agencies and government approvals to make changes. 

To avoid obsolescence, building operators must anticipate the changes that are required to remain relevant. If the building is not a historical structure of advanced age, then demolition and rebuilding for the same use or a new use could be an option. Alternatively, if the building is in good condition, or has historical value, it can be renovated for the existing use, or adapted to a new use.

The city of Council Bluffs, Iowa has been successful in identifying its surplus stock of vacant public buildings. As a result, they have adopted a measure to promote adaptive reuse focused on housing. Many of the public buildings for adaptive reuse are located in residential areas. Rezoning of these areas allows adaptive reuse projects to create multi-family housing opportunities among the existing single-family residences.

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Re use of Mixed Use Property, Adaptive Re-use ( Source:  ©

Mixed Use Property Obsolescence | Adaptive Re-use

Many cities offer a mixed-use environment, where living, working, and recreation can all be found within a short distance. This development type is analyzed where it occurs as one single property type with multiple uses. Flexibility is inherent to the mixed-use environment because as one function begins to lose its momentum, other more viable functions can continue successfully. Variety in functions adds value to the building. 

Sections of a mixed-use building are more likely to become obsolete and thus ripe for adaptive reuse than an entire building. In the case where an entire building is useless, demolition and reconstruction become a viable option. If only a portion of the building is eligible for reuse, it does not make sense to demolish the entire building and redevelop at least not until the entire building becomes obsolete. 

In 1999, the city of Los Angeles adopted an Adaptive Reuse Ordinance for encouraging the conversion of existing, underutilized commercial properties for housing use. The measure was part of an effort to increase the downtown population. The city needed to add 1,500 to 3,000 new units to the downtown area and managed to convert twenty-two existing properties into 3,400 housing units.

<span style="font-weight: 400;">Conservation of Retail Space, Adaptive Re-use </span><span style="font-weight: 400;">( Source:  ©</span><span style="font-weight: 400;"></span>
Conservation of Retail Space, Adaptive Re-use ( Source:  ©

Retail Property Obsolescence

Online shopping, also known as e-commerce, is a phenomenon that has begun to have an impact on the physical shopping environment. Although, increasing online sales has changed the way physical retailers do business. Since shopping has become a form of entertainment, enhancing the entertainment aspect of the shopping experience is an effective strategy for restoring the physical experience of shopping. In this case building, tenants cannot make enough profit to lease space, resulting in vacancy and ultimately building obsolescence.

In Providence, Rhode Island a former shopping mall, called Arcade Providence, has been adaptively reused for housing. The mall was closed in 2008 and began its renovation into forty-eight micro-loft apartments in 2012.

<span style="font-weight: 400;">Reuse of Hotel Property, Adaptive Re-use </span><span style="font-weight: 400;">( Source:  ©</span><span style="font-weight: 400;"></span>
Reuse of Hotel Property, Adaptive Re-use ( Source:  ©

Hotel Property Obsolescence | Adaptive Re-use

Hotels are a very specific building type, which requires specific building interior design. This makes retrofit for a new use very expensive. Therefore, the purchase price of the hotel must be below for the project to be feasible. This condition makes adaptive reuse difficult in many cases, except when reuse involves another type of living arrangement, where the existing interior services are utilized. Housing, therefore, is appropriate reuse for hotels, given that it provides the most feasible opportunity for the property.

Efforts by the British Columbia Housing Authority meet the needs of its lowest-earning citizens by providing single-room occupancy (SRO) units that have been converted from former hotels. Thirteen hotels were purchased by the Housing Authority in the last five years The SRO units are intended for a range of occupancy durations. Tenants are provided a single private room for short or long-term arrangements. 

Typically, in older hotels, a single room does not provide a private bathroom or kitchen. Many newer hotels provide private bathrooms and in these situations, the accommodations may be more comfortable.

Australian study 2001 shows that construction of a new building costs 40% energy and use of raw materials, 25% of the wood harvest, and 16% of water supply to the environment. This leads to 45% of co2 emission and 50% of total greenhouse gas emission. If an old building is re-used 95% of energy is saved. 

Therefore, adopting the technique of adaptive reuse is a need not a requirement of the world. Given the ongoing pandemic situation, temporary utilization of closed institutional, retail, industrial, public, and government properties should be used to provide shelter and medical assistance to those in need. 

The worldwide pandemic must be considered as an opportunity to promote the boons of adaptive reuse as a gold chip investment to the development market in the world.


Tina is an Architect and a Curator. She believes in balance and an admirer of the Prarie Style. She likes to brainstorms while ideating and curating. The ability to look beyond a defined use of material and molding and upcycling them is her USP.