The architectural challenge of adaptive reuse

Here’s a duo of articles that feel both old school (a conversation between blogs) and very much of today, where someone talks about a problem in the future and someone else reminds them, and us, that the problem is actually already here. First with Duo Dickinson who explains the coming challenges requiring adaptive reuse, and second with Lloyd Alter showing that these challenges are very much already here.

Now those ancient factories and legacy suburbs are being rethought, because they have ceased to reflect the values of those existing in a world of pandemic caution and accelerated climate change. Beyond the sweeping changes after World War II, this last decade has seen the end of specific building uses that will demand an extraordinary architectural reanimation in the coming years.

Dickinson explains that a “perfect storm of disparate cultural, technological, moral, physiological, and religious changes have affected what needs to be built,” and spends some time showing how religion is falling in the US, how churches are not well adapted to today’s housing challenges, and how malls and big box retail are now also crashing and need to be refactored for reuse, not torn down.

Now movie theatres and downtown offices building are also going through massive changes.

The national chain Regal Cinemas alone has closed 7,000 screens. John Fithian, head of the National Association of Theatre Owners, estimates that “around 70% of our mid and small-sized members will either confront bankruptcy reorganization, or the likelihood of going out of business entirely.”

Lloyd Alter agrees with most of what Dickinson explained, but argues, justly, that the problem is not upcoming, it’s happening as we speak, and needs to be taken seriously right away. Companies are already having difficulties bringing employees back to the office, which not only keeps some of them half empty, but also pushes many into moving to more modern and luxuriously appointed replacements, leaving old buildings empty and often extremely expensive to upgrade.

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.”

And yet, it’s vital that these buildings are preserved and re-used, that we don’t collectively go on a tear and construct new building after new building.

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.”

Ultimately, the two agree and push an important message, we must reuse existing buildings and pursue “a strategy of retrofit, refurbishment, extension and reuse over demolition and new build.”

Image: Insulating an existing building with rock wool. Frantic00 / Getty Images.