Past as Future: Making Adaptive Reuse Work

By Jacqueline Drayer

Hans Sachs Haus Gelsenkirchen
Hans-Sachs-Haus, Gelsenkirchen. Image: Hans-Georg Esch

The Cinderella story of an old warehouse converted into luxury lofts is well known to city residents today. Optimistically, this means a historic structure is thoughtfully altered to serve a modern purpose. Pessimistically, the story is one of working class architecture is transformed into playhouses for the rich. There is some truth in both views.

Adaptive reuse is the process of giving old, generally abandoned buildings new lives through new uses. Churches become museums. Steam plants become breweries. Schools become community centres. And yes, warehouses become lofts. Adaptive reuse is not necessarily a technical term: you may be able to demolish most of that warehouse and legally call the newly created lofts adaptive reuse.

However, its cousins, historic preservation and historic rehabilitation, carry legal weight. In the United States, a building deemed historic under state guidelines is often protected against demolition. A historically rehabilitated structure is one that meets the Secretary of the Interior’s guidelines for updating a building without destroying its historic integrity.

The best adaptive reuse is a twin of historic rehabilitation. Unused historically significant buildings are redeveloped so that they can contribute to their neighbourhoods aesthetically and economically, but also historically. That means that besides restoring an abandoned building to its original state and allowing profits to flow to developers and the local economy, the story of yesterday’s people and community are told.

This does not need to be difficult, and can just be a simple wall text or webpage dedicated to a history of what the building meant to past generations. Take Brussels’ Belgian Comic Strip Centre as an example. This “ninth art” is important to the country’s cultural history, and so is Victor Horta, the famed art nouveau architect who designed the converted textile warehouse. The museum shows its pride in both its collection and its home through telling the building’s history online, contextualising it alongside architect and design movement.

Belgian Comic Strip Centre
Belgian Comic Strip Centre

Much new development today obscures history, cherry-picking only attractive aspects to sell to consumers. For example, in the United States, 19th century working class housing proliferated along riverfronts. A century later, these areas were cleared and their histories swept under the rug. Such neighbourhoods’ original mixes of hard industrial labour and immigrant life are erased and replaced by images of old provincial ease, generally through naming and visually branding new developments.

Adaptive reuse should fight these practices, instead acting as a tool both to preserve buildings themselves and along with them, robust histories. Special attention should be focused on highlighting the social history of the buildings and serving the populations of their original occupancy, especially when these include traditionally marginalised groups. It serves a dual purpose: preserving history and minimising the displacement often wrought by gentrification. Highlighting social history can manifest as cultural street festivals, educational events, and local history days which enliven a space’s past for present residents.

In certain cases, adaptively reused buildings should seek to serve the communities who used the original buildings or ensure a degree of social benefit. For example, if a former public building is converted into private residences, designing a surrounding public space retains some wider community benefit. The redevelopment of a former textile mill in Trenton, New Jersey, may include private housing but it has also become a centre for public interest nonprofits and arts spaces while retaining its built heritage.

If possible, adaptive reuse should seek local involvement: what a builder or historian values may not intersect with communal concerns. Total agreement is unlikely and unnecessary, but including the public in decisions about how to adapt a historic building or memorialise its functions is a great way to take advantage of local perspectives to maintain the area’s most important features. This can be accomplished through community meetings and by forming a local citizen advisory group.

Approaching reuse in this way can help to mitigate gentrification and act as a foothold for more inclusive policy. Adaptations of this sort will not be available in every combination in every project, but their proactive incorporation will make a huge difference in how past history and future needs are experienced.

There will always be those for whom reuse is simply a way to make a buck, and even among the thoughtful, mistakes are made. It is critical to carefully monitor current building projects, particularly those receiving government funding, such as the United States’ historic rehabilitation tax credits. Equally important is observing how the community ultimately reacts to such spaces, noting successful components, and those that must be altered or removed. Of course those wishing only to profit will continue to do so, but focusing more press, public funding, and policy on motivating civically minded reuse will better the field.

Adaptive reuse is a multifaceted tool for improving cities: done well, it can re-energise neighbourhoods. Bringing abandoned buildings back to life can connect communities to local history and have wider social benefits. What’s more, reuse tends to be environmentally friendly: updating old buildings to meet modern codes is generally more sustainable than constructing brand new buildings. Adaptive reuse carried out in these ways is a tool for uniting past, present, and future for the betterment of cities and communities – bridging yesterday’s stories with tomorrow’s.

Jacqueline Drayer is a historic preservation graduate student researching adaptive reuse in Ghent, Belgium this year as a Fulbright Research Fellow


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