A Brief Introduction to Adaptive Reuse – The Practice of Repurposing Abandoned Structures

adaptive-reuse (Images: Andreas Poeschek (1, 2), cc-sa-2.0 ATBert Kaufmann; bobarcpics; cc-3.0)

Adaptive reuse allows culturally and historically important buildings to be redeveloped and repurposed instead of demolished. The practice considers and adapts the internal and external structure of a building (as opposed to facadism) so the character of the old influences the format of the new, leading to some quirky and inspirational features such as climbing walls inside silos.


converted-wheat-silo (Images: travelet (reproduced with permission); Bmorey, cc-3.0)

Advances in technology, changes to public transport networks, cultural and economic factors and increasing bureaucracy have all played a part in leaving once important structures redundant. Finding a new use for these otherwise abandoned spaces can boost the appeal of potentially neglected areas and reduce urban sprawl. The recent rise in recreational and commercial spaces along disused railway routes bears testament to this (check out New York City’s High Line and proposed Lowline, and Paris’ Promenade Plantée, below).

new-york-city-high-line-lowline (Images: Urban Ghosts; Raad StudioDelancey Underground, reproduced with permission)

As well as unforeseen problems with original structures and the removal of toxic materials such as asbestos, adaptive reuse must fall in line with current legislation and meet tough planning regulations.


western-metal-supply-co-petco-park (Images: CalderoliverEdward O’Connor; cc-sa-3.0)

So, while heritage funding is sometimes available for worthy projects, adapting an older building is often a complex and costly venture. Nevertheless, large mills and factories are commonly converted into apartments or offices, offering a sustainable option for regenerating brownfield sites – visit the Western Metal Supply Company, now part of PETCO Park.

pratt-street-power-plant-baltimore (Image: G. Edward Johnson (website), cc-3.0)

Some fantastic examples of adaptive reuse come from buildings that were intended to stand-up to explosion or attack, such as Flak Towers and gasometers, partly because their structures are so strong that demolition is problematic. Two notable repurposed power stations are the Tate Modern art gallery in London, and the retail complex in Pratt Street Power Plant in Baltimore (above).

adaptive-reuse-repurposed-buildings (Images: FNP ArchitecktenhellabellaRoy HendersonKate Nicol; RgooginOxymanUG)

And that’s not all! Several more quirky examples of adaptive reuse include homes created from repurposed pig barns, water towers and even tombssubway trains turned artists’ studios, chapels transformed into garages, telephone kiosks used as book exchanges and a bar adapted from a Victorian urinal.

Keep reading – check out our Adaptive Reuse tag.

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About the author: Alexandra Smith



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