Adaptive Reuse Is the Architectural Challenge of the Present—Not the Future

How buildings are used is changing.

Insulating an existing building with rock wool
Insulating an existing building with rock wool.

Frantic00 / Getty Images

There's only one major problem with a recent article by architect Duo Dickinson: the title. He wrote that adaptive reuse is the architectural challenge of the future when, in fact, it is very much the architectural challenge of the present.

Dickinson wrote, "In the next generation, America will see more resurrections of newly obsolete buildings than at any time since the advent of the Eisenhower Federal Highway System, when cities were radically gutted and a new 'suburbia' carpet bombed the landscape around them." But many of the changes he goes on to describe are happening now.

Church demolitions and conversions, for example, have been happening for decades because "organized religion in America is in freefall." Churches actually make wonderful conversions; we have shown many of them on Treehugger, and I worked on a few as an architect or developer 30 years ago. They are usually solid buildings with serious character in prime locations.

Dickinson wrote:

"Sometimes remnants are kept; sometimes these inefficient, low-tech buildings are removed. However, this is an age where sustainability is becoming a core design criterion—where the energy embodied in every building, the energy need to remove a building, the energy required to build a new one, and the toxins imposed on our environment in their construction or demolition, are becoming morally unacceptable and economically punitive, given the regulations and costs imposed. So sacred buildings must transition to profane uses, a challenge architects are well poised to address."

Many of the other trends he described, from the closing of movie houses to the redevelopment of second-tier shopping malls, also started happening years ago. As home screens got bigger and better and streaming services delivered movies a month or two after they were released, people stopped going to cinemas. As shopping online grew, traffic in the malls shrank. Then the pandemic hit, and all these trends got a giant kick in the butt, accelerating the process dramatically.

The numbers Dickinson threw out are astonishing:

"An estimated 8 million square feet of big-box stores are being turned into distribution centers. Since 2016, Amazon has converted 25 mall spaces into distribution centers, according to Coresight Research. Nearly 15 million square feet of big-box retail space in the U.S.has been converted to industrial space."

Dickinson didn't directly address what may be the biggest elephant in the room: office buildings. Many companies are trying to get their employees to come back to the office, but they're not having it. Other companies are abandoning older class B and C buildings that have lousy ventilation systems.

According to Bloomberg, 30% of U.S. office buildings are at risk of being obsolete.

"Some companies are scaling back their space. Others are gravitating to newly developed or recently overhauled offices that are environmentally friendly, with plenty of fresh air and natural light, fitness rooms and food courts. Left behind are older buildings that would be expensive to renovate to today’s standards. As values for those properties slide, some landlords are walking away." Almost as many buildings are being called the "mediocre middle," second-rate buildings in a world where "to entice balky workers back to their desks, employers are looking for spiffed-up offices with some of the perks of home."

Wharton real estate professor Joseph Gyourko says we have not yet seen the worst of the carnage in the commercial real estate market because leases run five to seven years. “I strongly suspect what will result is a move to concentration, a flight to quality," said Gyourko. "Over the next few years, as tenants start to rethink space needs and their leases rollover, they’ll go into better buildings, and the [worse] buildings will be in trouble.”

Gyourko said cities are going to face a real problem dealing with all the empty offices and the stores and services that the office workers used to support. “They should start thinking of this as their responsibility to rehabilitate those areas now, and not later," he said.

Dickinson also noted the internet has changed the way people work, as I have in posts about the third industrial revolution. He stated: "Like the Industrial Revolution, the internet inspired holistic changes not only in what buildings were needed for, but how they are made. In a time when there is an unprecedented need to recycle so many building types, it will take the creativity of reinvention to put new wine into old vessels."

Many architects and organizations are picking up this challenge. In the United Kingdom, the Architects for Climate Action Network says we have to "reuse existing buildings: pursuing a strategy of retrofit, refurbishment, extension and reuse over demolition and new build." Architects Declare says we should "upgrade existing buildings for extended use as a more carbon-efficient alternative to demolition and new build whenever there is a viable choice."

In the U.S., Jim Lindberg of the National Trust for Historic Preservation makes the case that "the best way to avoid embodied carbon emissions right now, when our carbon budget is shrinking fast, is to conserve and reuse as many existing buildings as possible."

I have often wondered how architects are going to make a living in a world where rule 1 is "build nothing," and rule 2 is "fix what we have using as few resources as possible." But Dickinson concluded with a somewhat optimistic note; I will give him the last word:

"Architects are at the edge of technologies, in the design and building of our buildings, but we’re awash in a sea of existing structures, in a world that is being undone by excess carbon to the point that anything we restore is less dangerous to our future than anything we built new. Churches, shopping malls, big-box stores, movie multiplexes, and office towers are becoming ominously silent all around us. Will architects be able to step up to see the possibilities in so many dead and banal structures? Let’s hope we find a revolution in their restoration."

Read it all at Common Edge.