How Adaptive Reuse Fulfils Sustainability Criterion

November 20, 2021


Sustainability is a widely debated topic. It is a fundamental principle underlying issues that are present in our daily lives – poverty, the environment, housing, climate change, and health.

Policymakers and economists recognized the concerns of ecologists and environmental scientists and attempted to draw concepts of ‘sustainable development.

When planning for sustainable development, there are three important ‘pillars’ which must be considered - economic, social, and environmental.

Repurposing a building has positive impacts on all three pillars of sustainability.

Adaptive reuse of old buildings has become popular in recent years. It has many environmental benefits. Reusing buildings is not only good for the environment but also helps to keep the original character of an area.

Heritage buildings are essential in the built environment. They contribute to the architectural and cultural identity.

Industrial heritage buildings which no longer fulfill their original function should have a new use. This is to conserve the significance of the building.

Conservation vs. Preservation

Adaptive reuse is not a new phenomenon. In the past, structurally secure buildings have been adapted to fit new needs or functions.

Examples include churches in the French Revolution. They have been transformed to serve industrial functions or military uses.

Yet these activities were carried out pragmatically in most cases. The aim was to have better financial and functional outcomes, not heritage preservation.

The theoretical approach towards adaptive reuse became more established after the French Revolution.

Eugene Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc (1814-1879) was an architect and chief inspector of restoration work on monument buildings in France. He identified adaptive reuse as a solution to conserve historic monuments.

The approaches he proposed for carrying out the conservation and restoration were often far-reaching at the time. In some cases, he implemented completely ‘new parts’ to the building. Although mostly in the original style.

According to Plevoets and Van Cleempoel (2013), this gave the direction to contemporary architects to alter the original building for reuse in clear, direct, and practical ways.

His views got opposed by other theorists of his time. Back in the 19th century his fellow practitioner John Ruskin and his pupil William Morris preferred regular maintenance and preservation of historic buildings.

They claimed it was impossible to restore anything that has great architectural and beauty values. The anti-restoration movement believed that the building should be allowed to exist on its own terms and display its own history (Plevoets and Van Cleempoel, 2013).

Humanity has come a long way since. We realized that although the cultural and historical values are significant, unused buildings should be better utilized for sustainable practices.

Economic Sustainability

Economic sustainability looks at the availability and use of resources that an area can offer. The overuse of natural, economic, or human resources for short-term gain can lead to wider economic hardship in the long term.

Establishing a circular economy enables individuals to use resources efficiently. This provides long-term prosperity opportunities.

A circular economy supports a regenerative system. Resource input, waste, emission, and energy leakage are minimized. The right Alpha Insulation techniques minimize energy leakage.

Maintenance, recycling, reusing, repairing, refurbishing, and remanufacturing goods contribute to using fewer resources.

Social Sustainability

As mentioned above, the different pillars are interrelated. Economic growth usually pairs with improved social services, such as public healthcare, education, or safe drinking water.

Social sustainability is based on the recognition of physical and non-physical human needs. This includes services such as education, employment, and housing to different social groups.

In theory, satisfying social needs leads to a stable community. Satisfaction with quality, design of housing, and local environment trigger a positive sense of place and attachment. This is a dimension of social sustainability.

Spatial planning can enhance the feeling of safety and belonging to a community. This creates stronger bonds among residents of a particular area.

A safe and accessible urban environment enhances social development. It increases the diversity of interactions and enhances the quality of life.

Environmental Sustainability

Environmental sustainability aims to protect and enhance the natural, built, and historic environment.

The natural assets of an area are important because they are limited resources. They cannot be harvested faster than they can be regenerated.

For achieving environmental sustainability, an area’s consumption must match or stay below the threshold of what it can produce. For example, water, soil, woodlands.

Ecological protection, preservation, and conservation are key. They help maintain the natural resources and prevent them from over-usage.

The industrial pollutants must not overwhelm the natural environment’s ability to renew itself. Only then the environment provides resources for every individual in the ecosystem.

Supporting green infrastructure, renewable energy, and low carbon techniques are part of environmental sustainability. Jobs in environmental sustainability are mitigating the environmental impacts. It is crucial because no society can live without an ecosystem.

Sustainable Development

Planning systems are tools to achieve sustainable development. To create an environment that meets the needs of the present, without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

Urban development plans should promote and enhance sustainability to ensure a healthy, safe, and connected environment for residents.

Discussions around sustainable development often exclude the use of heritage buildings. Yet they are a tool to reduce the need for new developments.

Available land for new developments in urban areas is increasingly scarce. 68% of the world’s population is estimated to live in cities by 2050. This is an increase of 10% from today’s population.

This makes the existing building stock - including industrial buildings - more appealing to be refurbished or repurposed.

The changing technologies and consumption habits influence the future of industries. But once they disappear, they leave their traces behind.

Cities expand as the population grows. Industrial buildings once on the edge of cities are now in desirable locations. Those vacant industrial buildings in some cases are in the heart of the city now.

The buildings, structures, and vacant spaces left behind need to be put into good use to avoid demolition. This results in a better distribution of resources.

Industrial buildings were constructed to accommodate large volumes of people. If the building structure is safe, it can still accommodate people today, only for different purposes.

Why Repurposing?

Our population is rapidly growing, and life is changing faster than ever before. This results in the need for change in building uses and built form in urban environments.

Demolishing and building new offices or apartments every time they stopped serving the needs of their users, generates tremendous amounts of waste. It also has a large carbon footprint.

But more importantly, it deletes meaningful features of the past. Especially when a building’s character reflects on important events of history. This directly affects social sustainability.

Industrial heritage buildings’ architectural, historical and social values are opportunities in urban environments. They have a leading role in heritage-led regeneration.

Adaptive reuse of industrial heritage buildings is defined as converting a building. Undertaking a change of use while retaining as much as possible of the original construction and character.

The conversion may entail refurbishment or complete renovation of existing buildings or structures.

Building conservation is important to keep the character and identity of places.

Giving a new use to derelict buildings is one way to preserve cultural heritage, protect the identity, and enhance the character of an area. Heritage is an important element of the built environment. It offers variety, ensures a mix of styles, and reduces monotony.

Keeping the historic settings of an area is beneficial to local communities. The familiarity with the environment enhances the connection and sense of place.

Also, saving a heritage building by conserving it in a contemporary style saves the embodied energy. That is a source of reflection on the past events of human history.

However, adaptive reuse can result in displacing existing communities. Due to economic changes brought by the regeneration, prices go up.

Culture and Identity

An urban place should be a functioning environment for cultural development. Architectural heritage is cultural heritage at the same time. Thus, during an adaptive reuse project, it is important to conserve the cultural aspects of a building.

It is also important for place identity to fight monotony. Providing an attractive atmosphere for people. Somewhere to spend time in an area, without the pressure to spend money.

To achieve this, the design has to integrate the heritage features respectfully.

The sense of place and identity can be enhanced through a series of interventions. These improve the underutilized heritage buildings.

The historical layers are great features because urban areas always evolve. The historical buildings help people remember where places evolved from.

The positive impacts of strong place identity are even greater in the globalizing world. It is important to create a positive place identity because it encourages people from different backgrounds to share the same space for different activities.

Plevoets, B., & Van Cleempoel, K. (2013). Adaptive reuse as an emerging discipline: an historic survey. In Cairns, G. (Ed.), Reinventing architecture and interiors: a socio-political view on building adaptation (pp. 13-32). Libri Publishers




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Carlos Diaz
I believe in making the impossible possible because there’s no fun in giving up. Travel, design, fashion and current trends in the field of industrial construction are topics that I enjoy writing about.

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