Making the Most of What We Have

by Joel Harper on 2018-02-06 3:54pm

Image by: Brandon Lim

What do we do with buildings that have outlived their usefulness?

At one time, there was only one answer to this question: demolition and disposal of the remains in a landfill. However, that is not necessarily the only option anymore. In some cases, the life of a building can be extended by adapting the building for a different use. In other cases, the leftover pieces of a demolished building can be repurposed and used in new building construction.

Adaptive reuse is the term for converting an existing building or complex of buildings so it can be used for some other purpose than it was originally intended. Examples of adaptive use include taking an old factory and turning it into a shopping center, changing an abandoned church into a performance hall, and converting an unused train station into a restaurant.

Adaptive reuse commonly preserves as much of the structure as possible while completely changing the building’s purpose. This process is particularly suited for historic buildings or buildings with an iconic design. The look and shape of the building can be preserved while giving that building a new lease on life. Adaptive reuse conserves space and building materials. This is one answer to the problem of sprawl. Instead of building new structures further and further out, existing buildings can provide the needed space. This may also be the economical option if constructing a new building is prohibitively expensive.

An example of adaptive reuse. The image on the left is the Bankside Power Station in London circa 1953. The image on the right is the same building, now the home of the Tate Gallery.

Images by: Ben Brooksbank (right) and Christine Matthews (left)

However, adaptive reuse is not a one-size-fits-all solution. Some buildings are too damaged or old for adaptive reuse. When considering this, the cost of preserving and converting the building must be compared to the cost of demolishing the building and building in its place. Sometimes a building is not worth using.

And that brings us back to demolition.

The demolition of a building can leave a large amount of leftover material. The building may be gone, but the pieces can still be used as a part of new construction. This falls into two different categories: salvage and recycling. Salvage takes the form of taking leftover pieces from a demolished building putting them back into use as a part of a new construction project. Such elements as wood beams, bricks, and shingles can be taken and made a part of another structure. Recycling involves breaking down and reconstituting the remains of demolished building into new building materials. Recycling technology has improved dramatically, allowing a wide variety of materials to be turned into a wide variety of building materials. Concrete and glass can be turned into countertops and plastics and wood can be reformed into decking materials.

Salvage and recycling may not preserve the building, but it does preserve materials. This reduces the impact on the environment and can even result in buildings that are more energy efficient and environmentally friendly.

Buildings can serve a useful purpose even after they have come to the end of their original lifespan. Adaptive reuse takes obsolete buildings and converts them for new uses. Rather than knocking an old building down, a creative use of the space can result in a building taking on a second life with an entirely different purpose. If demolition of a building is necessary, the remains of that building can still be used for new construction. Some pieces of a building can be salvaged while others can be recycled and reconstituted into new materials.

Construction requires many resources, not all of which are renewable. Land, for example, can be extremely limited. Adaptive reuse, salvage, and recycling all work to reduce the amount of resources that need to go into creating space for people and businesses. We are entering a smarter, more efficient future where whole buildings may be repurposed, reused, or recycled. The house of the future may well be formed from the factory of the past.


Joel Harper is a content writer for At Your Pace Online. In his over five years with the company, he has written on numerous educational topics. Joel is a graduate of Southern Oregon University where he earned a bachelor’s degree in sociology. He lives in Ashland, Oregon with his wife and dog.