Land is a limited resource, but demand for construction keeps rising. That situation, paired with the push for greater sustainability, presents a challenge – but the answer may lie in buildings that already exist. With adaptive reuse, construction firms can create new spaces without building an entirely new structure.

What Is Adaptive Reuse?

Adaptive reuse, also called architectural reuse or building reuse, is the practice of repurposing an old building for a new use. Unlike conventional renovation, it doesn’t refresh a property so it can keep serving its current or old role. Instead, it gives buildings a different purpose, essentially creating a new property without complete demolition or construction from scratch

The U.S. government owns an estimated 45,000 underutilized buildings, and many more commercial properties sit abandoned, taking up city lots without contributing to the economy. This vast availability of unused, aging structures provides ample opportunity to minimize waste and urban sprawl while simultaneously meeting a city’s current infrastructure needs.

Old churches can become restaurants, abandoned industrial complexes can become low-income housing, and historic government buildings can become museums. By reimagining these structures, construction firms can address multiple problems facing America’s infrastructure in a single project.

Benefits of Adaptive Reuse

The most direct benefit of adaptive reuse for construction companies is that it’s cost-effective. It often takes less time and money to renovate an existing space than to design and construct a new one of the same size. That’s particularly helpful for firms facing significant backlogs after recent demand spikes.

This approach to architecture is also far more environmentally friendly than building from scratch. Because these projects take less time, fossil fuel-powered heavy equipment runs less frequently and emits less greenhouse gas. With much of the structure already existing, firms also add minimal embodied carbon to the property, and avoiding demolition creates less waste.

Reusing existing architecture also reduces urban sprawl, as it provides new space for businesses without taking up new lots. Bringing historic buildings back to life can also preserve the community’s heritage and improve an area’s aesthetics, improving spirits and the quality of life in the area.

Types of Adaptive Reuse

There are many different types of adaptive reuse, too. This variety of approaches further expands the possibilities of what construction firms can do with old builds. Here are five of the most exciting and beneficial of these strategies.

1. Renovation

The most familiar type of adaptive reuse for most professionals is renovation. In this approach, construction teams repair, rebuild, or refurnish much of the inside of a building but leave the exterior largely unchanged.

It’s important to note that renovation in this context differs from the conventional sense of the word. Instead of refurbishing a property to make it better for the same purpose, it does so to give it a new use.

An excellent example is the Detroit Foundation Hotel, which repurposed the original headquarters for the Detroit Fire Department. While the exterior still looks like an old fire station, the inside is almost entirely new, featuring more modern amenities and restructured layouts to accommodate the new business. Not all renovation projects are so dramatic, but adaptive renovations are typically more involved than simple refurbishment.

2. Historic Preservation

Historic preservation is a similar but distinct approach to adaptive reuse. In these projects, the primary goal is to preserve or restore the building’s history. Like renovation, it often deals more with the interior than the exterior, but it keeps much of the original interior’s aesthetic and integrity.

Changes in this type of reuse often include upgrades to meet current building codes. As green building becomes an increasingly important trend, some projects also implement more energy-efficient infrastructure to help historic properties reduce their carbon footprints.

This approach is ideal for museums, as the building itself can become an art or history installation. Even though the property serves a different purpose now, it holds on to its roots to preserve its community significance.

3. Facadism

If an old build is in particularly poor repair or has little historical significance, firms may opt for facadism. This type of adaptive reuse demolishes and rebuilds most of the structure while keeping the street-facing side intact.

Keeping the facade while changing the rest of the building is a more involved but practical approach to architectural reuse. Some teams may find it easier to integrate modern systems into a new structure than install them via minimally invasive fixes.

However, because this approach only leaves part of the original structure, it doesn’t preserve much of its history or aesthetics. Supporting the facade, which may be fragile, while demolishing and rebuilding the rest, may also be expensive.

4. Integration

Most approaches to reuse focus on internal changes to historic buildings while preserving their exterior. Integration takes a more dramatic direction by leaving the entire original structure in place while building new infrastructure around it.

The Union of Romanian Architects Building in Bucharest, Romania, is a great example. When the Union sought to convert the old secret police headquarters into their own office, they couldn’t demolish it because of its protected historical status. Instead of changing the structure, they added a modern office space on top of it, giving it new life while preserving the entire original building.

Integration is less common than some other methods because it can be complicated and only works if the original structure is still in relatively good condition. However, with the right approach, it can make a stunning architectural statement.

5. Infrastructure Adaptive Reuse

Adaptive reuse can revive structures apart from buildings, too. Infrastructure reuse takes outdated or crumbling infrastructure like highways, railroads, or industrial plants and turns it into new public works like parks.

The High Line in New York City is one of the most famous examples. The site used to be an elevated railway but fell into disrepair after rising truck usage rendered the rail unnecessary. In the early 2000s, architects turned it into a park with walking tracks, viewing balconies, and an open-air market, letting the structure serve the community again.

With so much aging infrastructure in the U.S., this type of reuse is an increasingly attractive option. It also provides needed green spaces or safe community gathering points without clearing existing lots.

Make the Most of a Build by Reusing Old Architecture

Old builds don’t have to fall into underuse and new ones don’t need to involve extensive demolition or urban sprawl. Adaptive reuse lets construction firms join the past and present to preserve architectural history while meeting the future’s needs. Leaning into this trend will also help the sector become more cost-effective and sustainable.