Reduce, reuse, recycle. It’s a phrase we’ve all become accustomed to hearing. Some products and materials are commonly recycled with little thought, such as beverage containers in states with a deposit law or plastic grocery bags returned to the receptacle at the supermarket. Metal, glass and cardboard are other examples. Now think bigger. Think urban. Think entire buildings being converted into a completely new space. 

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The practice is known as adaptive reuse, and it’s gaining momentum in the face of ever-growing environmental challenges. Through adaptive reuse, old buildings are given new life, and the process brings a host of benefits to the community, inhabitants and environment

Related: Stockholm offices repurposed into apartments with green roof

A layout of buildings

Better for the community

Reusing buildings already taking up space in the city keeps the building from being torn down, helping to maintain the roots of the community. Plus, existing real estate is less expensive than new builds, providing community members more affordable options in their own neighborhood. 

Existing buildings already have the surrounding infrastructure too. Therefore, the new owner has fewer obstacles in regards to parking and street access. An established location also often means surrounding residential and commercial buildings that offer a premade community. Creating an urban center of accessible services means people are more likely to walk or bike, leaving cars and their toxic emissions off the road. 

A building with tin barrels outside of it

Better for the environment

Embodied carbon is a massive problem for our environment. Every time we source virgin materials, we release carbon into the air through extraction, processing, manufacturing, packaging and transport. This is before the material is even used in construction. The more we can reuse what’s already onsite, the less of an impact the build has on the environment. Plus, reusing materials significantly decreases the amount of waste associated with tearing down buildings. 

In addition, avoiding new builds helps keep the land intact, since there’s no need to clear plants and trees or otherwise prepare the land. As we know, plants absorb carbon dioxide and release the oxygen we breathe. They also sequester that carbon deep in the soil, which is released when we break ground on new construction. 

Ava Alltmont, AIA, LEED AP, Associate and New Orleans Studio Director at Cushing Terrell, a multi-discipline design studio, recently put together a paper on the topic titled, “Land (Re) Use and Climate Change: Breathing New Life into Old Buildings.” She explained the concept is more applicable than ever with shops shuddering and storefronts sitting empty as a result of the pandemic and economic downturn.

“When buildings are adapted for reuse, this can benefit both the companies and the communities involved by way of reducing environmental impacts, improving quality of life and maintaining a sense of place,” Alltmont said.

Fortunately, many examples of this strategy are being seen in neighborhoods across the country. You’ve likely seen an old building being converted into a music venue, offbeat bar, notable restaurant, antique mall or loft apartment. Alltmont says adaptive reuse might be referred to as a “renovation, modernization, historic preservation, infrastructure reuse and additions, to name a few. And within those categories are even more varieties of adaptive reuse.”

Street view of a supermarket

More than just reusing materials

Adaptive reuse isn’t without challenges. In most cases, the building is decades or even centuries old. Systems need to be updated and working within the existing framework can be complicated. However, the benefits of a good location combined with the significantly lower carbon footprint makes adaptive reuse an effort that pays in fresh air, lower pollution, cultural rejuvenation and waste reduction. 

With the global zeitgeist aimed at recognizing the effects of climate change, adaptive reuse should garner the same attention as other forms of recycling. With a post-pandemic focus on wellness, the increase in work-from-home opportunities, a limited amount of available land to build on and empty buildings blanketing the landscape, it’s a perfect time for individuals and businesses to invest in the idea.

A movement of community

In summary, the idea of adaptive reuse adds up to more than just reusing building materials. It’s a movement that cements the history and culture of an area, ties communities together, directs away from urban sprawl (and the traffic that comes with it) and provides more affordable real estate options. 

“If we look back at the cyclical nature of recycling, it’s easy to see the business imperative in adaptive reuse,” Alltmont concluded. “If opting to reimagine an existing building is good for the environment, quality of life and a community’s sense of place, then it will attract more talent, residents and visitors to the city, thus improving the local economy. It’s a case of reduce, reuse, recycle — and revitalize.”

Via ModernCities and Ava Alltmont from Cushing Terrell

Images via Cushing Terrell