Adaptive Re-use in Architecture

Adaptive reuse in architecture means the repurposing of an existing building, in a manner that maintains its original external structure- but completely changing its original function. The concept per se is not new to architecture as the practice of repurposing buildings began in the 1960s. However, its significance has deepened and the concept has become more meaningful, only in recent times. Converting an old mill complex into affordable housing units, transforming a century-old meat plant into a shopping complex, or repurposing a heritage building into a cinema house; are all examples of adaptive reuse. 

At this point, we would like to point out, that term does not apply to redevelopment projects where existing structures are destroyed to create new ones. We will elaborate on the reason for this soon enough. Some live examples of adaptive reuse are 1) the transformation of a 175 meters long industrial warehouse in Utrecht, Netherlands into a working space for independent entrepreneurs into light manufacturing. 2) the on-going transformation of an industrial complex by David Chipperfield Architect. The site has a cluster of heritage buildings and the project will create a mixed-use complex for the people of Berlin. Adaptive reuse has many facets to it. Let us explore this further.  

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Over centuries, as cities grew, they engulfed former industrial areas. These were areas demarcated as factory zones and hence meant they covered large tracts of land. Due to reasons, such as the decline of an industry and natural expansion of metropolitan cities, these zones have now become part of prime city localities. It is then but natural that builders and architects identify these as potential sites rebuilding or adaptive reuse. While unfortunately, the latter is a small percentage, the AEC community is slowly learning to adopt more of it. 

An example in Mumbai, India, is the structure within the erstwhile Kamala Mills. Most buildings in the old mill compound, have their external structure intact as per the original blueprint. However, the insides have been converted into clubs, fine-dine restaurants, and gaming zones. The mill compound is in the high street Lower Parel area of Mumbai. Adaptive reuse can be a highly profitable project if done right. Around the globe, industrial spots in prime localities, have been successfully converted to premium condominiums and commercial complexes. 

Preservation of History

Architectural styles tend to evolve over the centuries. Therefore, a single country with a rich history will have archaeological structures with vastly different styling. Invasion and migration in past were reasons behind changing architectural inspirations and construction methods. However, as the world grows flatter, in a digital age, styles across the world are morphing into a similar mold. This is when the importance of historic or old structures, rises even more. They lend certain unique attributes to buildings in modern cities, which no modern building can. 

Thus, adaptive reuse plays a key role in the preservation of history. The goal is to retain the authentic character of the structure despite the change in its original function. Successful architects in this field, first work on restoring the original structure using the same material and method that was used on it, during construction. They work hard on maintaining its external authenticity and even the framework. They try to replicate the craftsmanship used in the time gone by. Finally, they work on the current function that the building is supposed to serve.

Sustainability in Reuse

The inherent concept of adaptive reuse is born out of the need for sustainability. If you see it in isolation, it is a practice that promotes recycling and reusing. It is about repurposing an existing building and reducing environmental impact via less material and energy usage. Further, if the site is in a crowded city, adaptive reuse essentially helps curtail unnecessary expansion. If one were to sum up the area covered by repurposed structures in a city, one can estimate the area of green land saved from being chopped down. 

Most old buildings were built out of environmentally friendly materials, such as sun-dried bricks, lumber, sandstone, and limestone. Industrialization has brought in artificial materials such as cement, fiber-reinforced concrete, steel, polymers, and glass. Adaptive reuse allows for a reduction in the use of such material. Architects working on such products tend to rely mostly on sustainable material as they inherently understand the philosophy behind adaptive reuse. 

Pointers for Young Architects

An adaptive reuse project can translate into a career transforming opportunity for a young architect or even someone who is mid-career. It’s a unique opportunity that combines history with modern design elements. The architect in-charge essentially needs to work on improving the functional performance of the structure. Simultaneously, he needs to work on maintaining the original aesthetic sensibilities of the building. The following are some areas one can look out for, before taking up an adaptive reuse project. 

Firstly, it is important to choose the right site. Not every old building is ideal for repurposing. Keep in mind the capital investments involved and the total operational cost of the project. One needs to make an in-depth study of the building shell and that may involve consultations with structural engineers. The next matter of consideration is the required standards for construction. This is especially true for a heritage or a historically important site. The availability of construction material that matches the existing structure needs to be ensured. Plus, the skill to use age-old retouching methods. Lastly, as an aware architect, one needs to ensure the overall project is environmentally sustainable. This can be achieved via minimized energy consumption and reduced use of environmentally unsustainable material. Reading up on case studies helps. 

Adaptive reuse in architecture is an evolving art, despite being a practice for decades. In an upcoming blog post, we will explore examples of successful adaptive reuse projects. In a world that is increasingly getting shorter on resources, architecture like this contributes to lessening the burden. They are indeed one of the answers to creating a sustainable future. 

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