When we think of upcycling, we often think of small items such as clothes and scrap materials. But what about upcycling buildings? Baran Studio, based in Oakland, California, does just that. One of the methods that the studio uses to create sustainable architecture is adaptive reuse. To do this, the designers revamp pre-existing structures to create vibrant new spaces, minimizing costs and new materials.

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Upcycled buildings have several benefits. From an aesthetic standpoint, the contrasts between old and new elements are exciting and give the buildings a unique appearance. The interactions between various materials and construction methods give the buildings a layered, collage-like playfulness. Additionally, adaptive reuse offers practical benefits. By renovating and enhancing existing spaces, new materials and construction costs drop significantly, as the main structure of the building is already in place.

Related: House Offset reinvents New York renovation aesthetics

Red brick pre-existing warehouse exterior that encases new yellow apartment building

The adaptive reuse process

Though adapting a pre-existing structure has numerous advantages, it can be a challenging exercise for the designers. Often, the functions of the existing buildings clash with the requirements of the new spaces. When this happens, the designers have to creatively find ways to blend the spaces without sacrificing function.

When designing spaces that feature the adaptive reuse process, the pre-existing buildings guide the designers’ workflow to revamp the spaces. This is similar to how many architects go about projects in general: They look to the social and geographical contexts for clues and inspiration. Baran Studio takes this one step further by looking to the existing spaces as a starting point and choosing how to best intervene. Paying homage to the existing building by preserving as much as possible is a play between functional requirements and the limits set by the local building codes for occupant safety.

Though the design team preserves as much of the pre-existing structures as possible, their new additions to the buildings seek to complement the old construction, not mimic it. This is because over time construction methods and materiality have evolved. Since mimicry is not usually an option, the architects’ design decisions feature elements that complement or contrast with the pre-existing building features. This in turn creates interesting visual juxtapositions that give the spaces a distinct, multifaceted aesthetic.

Two interlocking building volumes, one of which is newly constructed and the other is a renovated warehouse structure

Sustainable retrofitting buildings

From an environmental standpoint, adaptive reuse is a sustainable construction method. Instead of demolishing the entire building and constructing from scratch, materials that can be repurposed are saved from accumulating in landfills and the pre-existing structure can be optimized for the new project. Therefore, there is no need to acquire all-new resources for the project. This is especially pertinent, as the construction industry is one of the most harmful sectors to the environment.

This is primarily because of its extensive CO2 emissions from construction techniques and material production, high levels of resource exploitation and threats to biodiversity during the site preparation and building processes. Thus, by building using the adaptive reuse method, construction-related threats to the surroundings are minimized.

Another key strategy that the team’s method makes use of is building in heavily populated areas. This prevents sprawl by maximizing density. By limiting sprawl, emissions from transport are reduced as occupants do not have to commute long distances for work and have access to resources within their neighborhood. Minimizing sprawl also prevents harm to ecosystems by optimizing land use without disrupting habitats for more building space. Therefore, by maximizing land use to increase urban density, natural resources, ecosystems and biodiversity are preserved in urban and suburban areas.

Internal circulation space that features a pre-existing warehouse wall and a newly constructed wall painted with colorful abstract shapes and patterns

Adaptive reuse for domestic buildings

One of the most common functions of Baran Studio’s adapted structures is residential architecture. This includes both single-family homes and multi-family housing complexes. Three multi-family housing projects that feature the adaptive reuse strategy include 23rd Street, Armory Lofts and 950 Lofts. These three Oakland-based schemes all use adapted warehouse structures for optimized multi-family housing.

Baran Studio’s 23rd Street project features an existing warehouse shell and 24-Work/Live-unit inserts. Each four-room unit is integrated into the building envelope while the center of the existing building is carved out to create a courtyard. This brings in light and fresh air that permeate through the entire building.

The studio’s Armory Lofts building adds 16 macro-units into a pre-existing warehouse on Oakland’s 24th Street. The units are incorporated by removing existing floors and adding new ones to better make use of the available space. This process also creates various terrace and courtyard-like exterior spaces along the perimeter of the building. These open spaces bring light and air into the interiors and assist with access to different parts of the building.

For their 950 Lofts project, Baran Studio modified and converted a fragrance company’s warehouse to make 28 loft-style apartments. The pre-existing warehouse was created using tilt-up construction, which is when concrete panels are cast on the ground and pulled upwards to form a building’s exterior walls. This tilt-up building now houses some of the apartments that face the street. Meanwhile, the new form is a large volume that grows up and over the original warehouse and encases it. This new volume takes into consideration functional aspects like circulation and traffic, while maximizing sunlight, views and airflow.

Modern loft interior with exposed pre-existing warehouse structure

Maximizing efficiency and comfort

As seen in the three projects mentioned above, the complexities that each pre-existing structure brings to a project ensure that each intervention is different. While some projects require more work to optimize space and adapt to the code’s regulatory constraints, all of the buildings undergo similar strategies to capture environmental features such as natural light and airflow.

Though not all elements of the existing structures can be retained or adapted to fit the final building, the new retrofitted spaces evoke a sense of balance. They maintain an industrial, modern appearance with elegant details without sacrificing practicality and occupant comfort.

Alongside adapting spaces to suit new functions, Baran Studio’s refurbishments also upgrade building services to make the spaces more comfortable, safe and energy efficient. Some of the modifications include adding insulation to walls and roofs, enhancing waterproofing to protect the interiors and improving ventilation. Depending on how much space is available, projects may also incorporate solar harvesting and rainwater catchment systems. Smaller scale interventions also include upgrading fixtures such as lighting and plumbing to conserve water and energy.

Overall, Baran Studio’s adaptive reuse process is a useful way to prevent threats to ecosystems and resource wastage, as the construction is more efficient and environmentally friendly. Besides an increased prioritization of the context and environment, the projects have a unique visual and spatial appeal through their juxtapositions of old and new construction materials and methods.

+ Baran Studio

Images via Benedicte Lassalle and Lloyd Ranola