There’s a famous saying by architect and sustainability expert Carl Elefante: “The greenest building is the one that is already built.” Adaptive reuse—the repurposing of buildings that have outlived their original purpose—can take many paths, from preserving architectural and cultural heritage to transforming urban blight to sparking social change. Yet these approaches share a goal of extending the useful life of buildings as societal and technological needs evolve.
Experts predict that 90 percent of real-estate development in the next decade will focus on the renovation and reuse of existing structures. It’s easy to see why: Adaptive-reuse projects are generally faster, more cost-effective, and more sustainable to construct than new buildings.
Fun fact: A new energy-efficient building can take 10 to 80 years to overcome the impact of its own construction process. Think of buildings as very large manufactured goods; prolonging the lifespan of existing structures is a sustainable strategy that will become a necessity as the world population grows more urbanized.
The financial advantages of adaptive reuse are far-reaching: Beyond the primary savings that come with reusing existing materials and infrastructure and avoiding demolition and new-construction costs, adaptive-reuse projects can revitalize the businesses around them and restore economic confidence in a region.
Here’s a look at six ambitious projects bringing new value and purpose to disused and dilapidated buildings.
1. To House the Homeless, KTGY’s Re-Habit Program Thinks Outside the (Big) Box
There are more than 550,000 homeless people in the United States. Of those, 30% don’t have access to a year-round bed. At the same time, nearly 6,000 retail stores will close this year alone. What if there was a way to address both of these issues with a single solution?
Architecture firm KTGY aims to do just that with its Re-Habit mixed-use transitional-housing concept, which repurposes the footprint of a vacant big-box store into a co-living community center with sleeping pods, dining halls, recreational areas, small retail spaces, and supportive resources for developing strategies for long-term self-sufficiency. Work opportunities support programming and generate resident investment in the center’s success. Centers are designed with sustainability in mind, incorporating rooftop gardens and energy-efficient photovoltaic facades. Read the article.
2. Hong Kong’s New Arts Center Preserves Colonial History
Hong Kong’s Tai Kwun (“big station”) center, which opened last summer, has given 16 historic police and judicial buildings new life as a 300,000-square-foot cultural complex. The site—the city’s largest heritage-conservation project in its history—preserves 150-year-old structures that serve as relics of Hong Kong’s time as a British colony, and also adds two new structures.
Today, visitors can attend concerts and art exhibitions, enjoy cocktails in a jail that once imprisoned Ho Chi Minh, and admire the continuity between old and new architecture exemplified in the original-brickwork-inspired aluminum cladding encasing the stunning new JC Cube and JC Contemporary art galleries. Read the article.
3. Ford’s Corktown Campus: A Step Closer to a Revitalized Detroit?
Not many American cities offer greater opportunities for adaptive reuse than Detroit, with its thousands of abandoned structures standing testament to the staggering economic decline that followed the automotive industry moving production out of the city.
In the past few years, however, Detroit has become a model for economic resurgence, thanks in part to major investments in its downtown area. One of the most high-profile ventures is the Ford Motor Company’s ambitious plan to transform the historic Michigan Central Station in the Corktown neighborhood into a 1.2-million-square-foot “innovation campus” that promises to bring 2,500 Ford employees into the area and create 2,500 additional jobs.
Building the vast campus, which will focus on autonomous and electric vehicles and urban mobility solutions, starts with drying out the 600,000-square-foot structure that had been heavily damaged by the elements since the last train departed 30 years ago. After the 105-year-old building is stabilized and the MEP systems are replaced, the final phase will focus on interior design, using 3D printing to re-create historic elements. Read the article.
4. Tel Aviv’s Jaffa Hotel Blends Eight Centuries of Architecture
For visionary designer John Pawson and architect and conservationist Ramy Gill, the Tel Aviv Jaffa Hotel has been a monumental labor of love. It took a decade to restore and renovate Jaffa’s historic School of the Sisterhood of Saint Joseph convent and adjacent 19th-century former French hospital, transforming them into boutique accommodations and residences for the W Hotels brand.
The final design mixes classic architectural styles—including Arabic and neoclassical—with contemporary elements, paying homage to the building’s historic beauty with scraped plastered walls revealing generations of patina. But its most unique design element started as a surprise: During excavation, crews discovered an ancient courtyard and bastion wall that date to the Crusades of the 13th century; those remnants are now a focal point in the new structure. Read the article.
5. Google’s Latest Land Grab: An Iconic Los Angeles Mall
For Angelenos of a certain generation, the Westside Pavilion was once the place to be. The West LA landmark, which opened in 1985, was a cultural icon for decades, making cameos in countless movies, television shows, and music videos. The mall was designed by architect Jon Jerde, best known for his structures for the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles and his grandiose mall designs, such as the colossal Mall of America in Minnesota. But business declined in recent decades, and the building was finally shuttered in 2018.
Developer Hudson Pacific Properties is renovating the sprawling three-story center as a high-tech office complex that will mainly house tech giant Google, which will occupy 584,000 square feet of space. A $410 million renovation will introduce radical new features including terraces and patios with folding glass walls intended to foster an indoor/outdoor work environment.
The mall takeover is the latest step in the tech giant’s expanding presence in Los Angeles, following its recent transformation of Playa Vista’s historic Spruce Goose hangar complex into office and production spaces for its YouTube division. (Nostalgic for the golden days of mall culture? The Westside Pavilion is forever immortalized in Tom Petty’s “Free Fallin’” video—available on YouTube, of course.) Read the article.
6. Channel Your Inner Don Draper at JFK Airport’s TWA Hotel
History is repeating itself at New York’s John F. Kennedy airport, where an iconic airline terminal has found new life as a boutique hotel. The bright, sweeping TWA Flight Center terminal, designed by renowned architect Eero Saarinen for Trans World Airlines, became an instant architectural landmark when it opened in 1962 but was abandoned by 2001 following the airline’s financial decline.
The building reopened in early 2019 after a two-year, $245 million restoration involving 22 government agencies and more than 170 firms. The hotel has meticulously preserved its midcentury glory and houses 512 soundproof guest rooms with floor-to-ceiling windows made of Fabrica glass that are the second-thickest windows in the world. Travelers with shorter layovers can still find respite at the hotel’s roof deck (with infinity pool), restaurants, and retail spaces. Read the article.