Sammy Ofer Centre, London, Hugo Chan 2018

“Heritage” is not typically a term that dominates discussions on sustainability. So often, our discussions around sustainable architecture are grounded in the new – new materials, new technologies and new systems.

In our obsession with newness, we can easily forget that the narrative of sustainability is not merely about technical longevity, but also about cultural sustainability, an expression of our city’s identity and thus a continuation of our collective memory of place.

Adaptive reuse brings a broadened understanding of sustainability to the table. It assumes that the ecology of buildings and urban spaces manifests as a dual narrative, both about the pragmatics of improving energy performance as well as an enrichment of our city’s cultural story.

Adaptive architecture is therefore poised, not as dogmatic ideology, but as modus operandi of synthesis – reminding architects that the past holds a plethora of potential, which can be reimagined, reconfigured and re-moulded to suit present needs and concerns.

This idea of adaptation is not new in architectural practice. Since time immemorial, different cultures have sought to “recycle” and “upcycle “buildings. Roman temples were painstakingly taken down and reconstituted as early Christian churches, with new towns rising from the ruins of the old.

With time, all buildings inevitably undergo functional shifts, as cultures are forged or destroyed, subsumed or conquered. Perhaps the greatest pre-modern example of this rests with the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul – conceived as a Greek Orthodox cathedral, reconfigured as an Ottoman mosque and finally, preserved today as contemporary museum.

Haiga Sophia
Haiga Sophia, Wikimedia Commons CC 3.0

Over one thousand years later, the relevance of adaptive architecture today as a key approach to heritage conservation and sustainability cannot be underestimated. In 2011, the Paris Declaration on Heritage as a Driver of Development was published with the clear vision of “integrating heritage and ensuring that it has a role in the context of sustainable development to demonstrate that heritage plays a part in social cohesion, well-being, creativity and economic appeal, and is a factor in promoting understanding between communities.”

Adaptive architecture is seen as a methodology both for maintaining the socio-cultural importance of buildings as physical markers of civic memory, while also acknowledging and working with the inevitability of functional and technological change as cities grow and develop.

Adaptive architecture acknowledges that our buildings are not immortal edifices and suffers from obsolescence in a multitude of ways:

  • physical obsolescence – the material fabric and structure of a building or site is no longer able to stand independently
  • economic obsolescence – it is no longer economically viable for a site to be operated in the manner for which a building may have been originally designed
  • functional obsolescence – the function of a building for which it was originally designed is no longer required
  • technological obsolescence – technologies have changed to render a site no longer necessary, or a building is incapable of adapting to technological change due to the rigidity of its original spatial planning and structure
  • socio-cultural obsolescence – a place of socio-cultural significance is no longer necessary (such as a place of worship), because cultural practices have changed, rendering the building obsolete

As a result of these modes of obsolescence, the story of adaptation falls into two broad categories:

  • form extends function – whereby contemporary alterations and additions are added to supplement a pre-existing use, and
  • function alters form – whereby the contemporary alterations and additions have been implemented to provide a new compatible use which differs from the building’s original design intent.
  • Tai Kwun Centr
    Tai Kwun Centre for the Arts, Hong Kong, Hugo Chan 2018

Buildings are not lifeless

Adaptive architecture recognises that buildings are not lifeless objects frozen in time, but actually inhabited places, changing with the times while continuing to speak of its own epoch.

Ultimately, the form and a building’s surface exist independently of the function housed within, while, continuing its symbolic and associative function of serving collective cultural memory, an adapted building becomes a successful synthesis of past forms with present technologies to anticipate an ever changing and uncertain future. 

Adaptive reuse has traditionally been consigned to the realm of heritage simply because it was a compulsory requirement to retain existing fabric or structures – an inconvenient last resort rather than an optimistic window of opportunity.

In challenging the modernist mantra of tabula rasa planning and realising that demolishing existing buildings is the easy way out, we can in fact begin to see how adaptive architecture fosters a more critically sustainable engagement with our site.

In New York, mid-century towers and warehouses have been paired back to their brickwork skins and steel skeletons, reinforced to provide new multi-purpose buildings growing taller from the carcass of the original, living a second life as the Wythe Hotel.

Hotel building
Wythe Hotel, New York

In London, two previously independent buildings are united under a new canopy, reorienting entries and access to suit contemporary education needs for the London Business School Sammy Ofer Centre. Such projects see existing fabric as a help rather than a hindrance and in doing so, creates unique spatial sequences that would not exist with standalone new buildings enriching the overall vitality and fabric of the city.

Adaptability should take centre stage

Looking to the lessons for the future, adaptive reuse suggests the potential for adaptability to take centre stage within the design of buildings. English architect Norman Foster argued that “the ultimately sustainable building, is a building that you can recycle. Instead of demolishing the building, you can adapt it to change. The challenge is to do buildings which encourage change, which respond to change and to have technologies and techniques which enable buildings to improve their performance.”

More complex in execution than the free-plan configuration put forward by 20th century modernism, the idea of long-life, loose-fit is a prevalent component for adaptive architectural thinking in new construction.

Whether for providing accessible and replaceable services channels to cope with (unpredictable) technological change or entire façade and wall systems which responds both to changing functional demands and to climatic conditions, architecture can no longer rest within specifically isolated and compartmentalised functions.

We have seen that adaptive reuse is not confined to the realm of heritage buildings, even though it may have been born and shaped by it. As a mode of thinking, we learn to accept the inevitability of change and adaptation is the lateral thinking exercise which teaches us how to cope with these changes in an ecologically and culturally sustainable manner.

Adaptive architecture more broadly begins the conversation of design with looking at what is already present, rather than jumping straight to what new form will be added to a site. Through this, adaptive thinking encourages a holistic understanding of both the physical lives of our buildings and the socio-cultural ideals, which they embody.

It encourages us to think more critically about our sites, making more thoughtful incisions into our urban fabric and ensuring that buildings are treated not as isolated objects, but rather, recognises that buildings are integral jigsaw pieces which inform, shape and mould the collective narrative of our cities.

Only by breaking the current destructive cradle-to-grave approach of building and demolition and moving to closed-loop cycles of adaptation and change can architecture truly be a foundational pillar in our ecologically and culturally sustainable future.

Hugo Chan is the architect & associate, practice management at Cracknell & Lonergan Architects and the director of Studio HC. Between 2018-2019, his research focused on the context for and effects of adaptive reuse in architecture under the Byera Hadley Travelling Scholarship program. This article illustrates some of the outcomes of his research.

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  1. let me ask a question:
    Which is profitable–trying to adapt an existing building or two into a new and improved entity for say 200 users with careful planning and using equipment and materials efficiently…or…tearing down part of said building and constructing a form which may not serve fully its purpose and serving 150 people? A building for adaptation and re-use can be had if the proper thinkers think for all (seniors, juniors,the handicapped, the able, the local and foreign, the short term and long term user, etc.) and mesh person accommodation with improved use into a viable package for all history and generations to note! Agreed? just my analysis.