Adaptive Reuse Gives New Life to Cities

  • Apr 18, 2016

By David Hutchison

It’s often a story that comes to light in the business section of the local news. An older building is being demolished for new construction. Despite ensuing public opinion, in many cases the building is demolished and with it a slice of history. Yet, more and more we’re seeing older buildings being adapted and bringing new life to cities.

Untapped opportunity lies before us in the existing building stock of this country, especially in our cities. Older schools have the potential to become apartments or community centers, older factories can be repurposed as restaurants and public gathering spaces and even old power plants can take on a new use as art museums.

While not all buildings can be saved it’s rewarding to be a part of repurposing a building for a new generation.

In Atlanta where I work, and through Central Atlanta Progress, where I serve on the Board, we’re seeing an interesting trend developing in downtown. A series of developers have adapted older buildings into something new rather than start from scratch. Just recently, several ambitious projects have opened or been announced including The Office (conversion to apartments), The Atlanta Daily World Building, Krog Street Market, The Hotel Indigo at 230 Peachtree and The M. Rich Building, to name a few. And, The Candler Building, for which Beck will provide design-build architecture and construction services, will soon be transformed into a Curio hotel, a luxury brand under the Hilton flag.

These projects are all part of what we call Adaptive Reuse, a term that refers to the process of reusing an old site or building for a purpose other than that for which it was built or designed.

Adaptive reuse of the existing building stock in this country for alternate uses can have a transformative impact by:

Fostering Community:

Adapting architecturally and historically significant structures that have outlived their original purpose can go a long way to preserving the look and character of a city, enhance neighborhood pride, foster cultural identity, maintain emotional ties and evolve treasured urban areas. The buildings stand as cultural anchors in a community and in some cases define a community. The neighborhoods and cities of the Eastern seaboard are a great example of this. These neighborhoods have evolved not by leveling and rebuilding, but by repurposing. Memorial Drive, the east-west spine that connects Atlanta’s iconic Peachtree Street to DeKalb’s Stone Mountain Freeway, is following this example.

Preserving the Environment:

It is often said that the greenest building is the one that’s already standing. Approximately 170,000 commercial buildings are constructed annually in the US and nearly 44,000 commercial buildings are demolished. Adapting existing buildings and sites reduces the material inputs and waste associated with new construction by reusing materials that would otherwise be demolished and discarded. Typically, this will include at minimum the foundation, façade and exterior of the building. On the other end of the supply chain, reduced material inputs reduces pressure on ecosystems around the world from which new materials are sourced.

Renovation also presents the opportunity to incorporate green technologies and materials into existing buildings to improve their overall energy efficiency. And older buildings may already have design features that maximize the use of natural light and passive heating and cooling. This could include higher ceilings in warmer climates, large windows that allow in natural light, and heavy, insulating exterior walls.

 Offering Cost Savings:

Adaptive reuse can offer vast cost savings compared to new construction and allows existing amenities, including parking and prime artery traffic to continue to be used.  Because vacant properties and buildings are already served by existing water, waste water, utilities, and transportation systems, costly expansion or installation of new infrastructure is not needed. Historic buildings may also include materials and features that would be prohibitively expensive to replicate on a new building, such as extensive use of stone and brick, or hand-sculpted adornment.

When older buildings are renovated, especially those in walkable, compact areas, downtown development districts, or historic areas can also be an economic engine to the area, often helping to revitalize the area and spur economic development.

Appealing to Future Generations:

Renovating or updating existing facilities can have broad appeal for the generation just entering the workforce and those that follow, who have a penchant for the past. In a 2015 article from the Huffington Post, author Elena Weissman expounds on this generation’s need for nostalgia. She says, “Millennials have assumed other generations’ good old days as their own.”

A love of the past by this generation could be good for our urban cores and could attract young people to urban work and living.

Whether those considering a new location are major educational institutions, corporations, retailers or hotels the decision to choose adaptive reuse will be driven by affordability against the benefits. Once this decision is made many business owners may be surprised that their new location is already built.

About David: David is Director of Client Services for The Beck Group in Atlanta. Although his focus is business development, David is not the stereotypical sales guy. He learned about the design and construction industry from the ground up, starting his career as an estimator and moving into project management before taking on his current role. His experience with large, complex projects includes Atlanta’s Two Alliance Center. David stays involved in Atlanta through participation in Urban Land institute, Buckhead Lions’ Club, and Central Atlanta Progress.