Insight

Adaptive Reuse: Architectural Alchemy

By 
Richard Hess, AIA
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The adaptation of existing buildings to suit current needs has taken on a new urgency in the post-Covid landscape.

THE ADAPTATION OF EXISTING BUILDINGS TO SUIT CURRENT NEEDS HAS TAKEN ON A NEW URGENCY IN THE POST-COVID LANDSCAPE.

Adaptive reuse, or the transformation of existing buildings to serve new purposes, recently garnered attention from an unlikely source: the White House. While adapting obsolete structures for different uses is not new, the Covid-19 pandemic revealed a pressing need in American cities. We must convert downtown office buildings to housing as quickly as possible.

The pandemic accelerated two trends that were already underway: high housing prices and telework. During Covid-19 lockdowns, downtown office buildings emptied out as white-collar employees worked remotely from their homes. At the same time, housing prices rose as those same workers competed for more spacious abodes.

Today, over 40% of workers are still working remotely at least some of the time, leading their employers to consolidate into smaller office spaces in higher-quality buildings. With fewer office workers and increasingly unaffordable housing, downtown restaurants and retailers are struggling, and spaces in older office buildings are going unleased.

The solution proposed by the White House is the conversion of underutilized office buildings to residential units, which cities like New York and Los Angeles have been pushing for years. As long-time advocates for building reuse, Quinn Evans is meeting the challenge of adapting underperforming places for continued service. We engage in adaptive reuse at all scales, converting structures ranging from a small machine shop to the 640,000-sf Michigan Central Station to new purposes that support contemporary needs.

An exterior photo of a 27-story glass building.
We converted the former Fiberglas Tower, a high-rise office building dating to 1971, into the Tower on the Maumee apartments. The project’s funding included historic tax credits.

Why Choose Adaptive Reuse?

We have long practiced and advocated for adaptive reuse because of its triple bottom line benefits. The reuse of existing buildings is one of our greatest opportunities for environmental, social, and economic impact.

GOOD FOR THE ENVIRONMENT

Adaptive reuse makes the most of the resources that have already been invested in the built environment. Embodied carbon refers to the greenhouse gases that are expended in the construction of a building, including in the creation of the materials that comprise it. By reusing – essentially, recycling – existing buildings, we preserve this embodied carbon and avoid emitting thousands of tons of additional carbon into the atmosphere through new construction. For example, by reusing Michigan Central Station, we’re generating only a quarter of the embodied carbon that a new building of its size would. In the last five years alone, Quinn Evans projects have avoided over 300,000 metric tons of CO2e through building reuse – equivalent to planting almost five million trees.

Every time we renew a building, we also reduce its operational carbon – or the carbon emissions generated by its systems as they operate. As we will explore later in this post, we are adept at making old buildings perform to today’s standards, reducing their ongoing carbon impacts.

An interior photo of a hotel lobby with historic charm.
By reusing the Latrobe Building as the Hotel Ulysses, we are avoiding the waste of 1,800 tons of embodied carbon as well as improving the building’s energy efficiency.

GOOD FOR COMMUNITIES

Adaptive reuse is a key component of community revitalization. Returning a vacant building to active use makes an immediate and quantifiable impact on neighborhood safety. In particular, the conversion of former commercial and industrial buildings to housing helps create vibrant, 24-hour neighborhoods where people live, work, and play – rather than traditional commercial districts that empty out when office workers leave for the day.  

In addition to the measurable benefits of building reuse, there are less tangible advantages. Old buildings give us a sense of continuity and a feeling of connection to the past. The razing of beloved buildings and the loss of that shared past can be experienced as trauma by impacted communities.

Similarly, vacant and rundown places can cause feelings of sadness and distress – while also leading to further neighborhood disinvestment. On the other hand, when we renew a familiar building, it becomes a point of community pride and a catalyst for additional investment. Before we transformed Detroit’s Metropolitan Building into a hotel, it sat vacant for four decades, its crumbling façade an eyesore and a danger to passers-by. Today it is a symbol of the city’s resurgence.

You think about 40 years of decline. Since then, we have come all the way back.
Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan at the Metropolitan Building’s reopening

A GOOD INVESTMENT

Adaptive reuse projects often return vacant buildings to income-generating use. Beyond the economic benefits to the building owner, the rehabilitation of derelict places provides a return on investment to society. One study calculated that every dollar spent on abandoned buildings yields a $79 social benefit in terms of gun violence prevention alone.

Even if a building is still occupied, its conversion to a more productive use is good for the owner and the community. A report by Coppin State University found that the Open Works maker space, which we created from an industrial building that had most recently housed a thrift store, generates $9.9 million annually for the Baltimore region.

An interior photo of a theater with a polychrome coffered ceiling.
Baltimore’s Chesapeake Shakespeare Theater was once a bank. Today it enlivens downtown Baltimore after business hours.

Diamonds in the Rough

It’s a common misconception that building reuse is prohibitively expensive – and that only new buildings can be high-performing. While there are certainly challenges to converting old buildings to new uses, we think it’s more than worth the effort to reap the many positive community and environmental rewards of building reuse. With a portfolio of more than 100 adaptive reuse projects, we have both the experience and expertise to make old buildings shine.

FUNDING

We understand the funding mechanisms, like historic tax credits (HTCs), that make transformative renovations financially feasible – and how to design for them. For example, projects that receive HTCs must adhere to the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for the Treatment of Historic Properties (SOI Standards). With our expertise in historic preservation, we readily understand which areas of a building can and cannot be altered according to the SOI Standards. More than 60 of our projects have received HTCs, including the Baltimore School for the Arts, which is housed in a former hotel and adjacent residence.

Our deep knowledge of historic buildings also allows us to maximize the project budget. We know how to right-size repairs and where we can replace historic fabric with new materials while maintaining the building's character. For example, at the Legacy we re-created missing ground-floor masonry with glass fiber reinforced concrete (GFRC), which was both less expensive than replacing it with traditional masonry and allowed us to re-use existing 1960s steel framing. This project, designed to the SOI Standards, received HTCs.

An exterior photo of a 5-story Victorian building.
The Legacy mixed-use building, another former bank, received funding from HTCs and won a Michigan Governor's Award for Historic Preservation.

SUSTAINABILITY

While the reuse of old buildings is naturally sustainable because their embodied carbon is retained, their operational carbon must also be addressed. We are skilled at integrating new MEP systems into existing buildings, including seamless insertions that meet the SOI Standards.

We work closely with engineering consultants to select efficient systems that will support the building’s needs and new use. We also identify opportunities to introduce renewable energy sources. At the Oliver Art Center, a former Coast Guard station that is now a LEED Platinum certified community arts space, a geothermal heat pump supplies part of the building’s energy.

Along with replacing building systems, we reduce operational carbon by tightening a building’s envelope – in other words, reducing the infiltration of heat or cold from the outside. Hygrothermal analysis shows us where we need to increase insulation or upgrade doors and windows. At the Packing House, historic preservation requirements limited the areas where we could add insulation in walls, but we made an even bigger impact with robust insulation at the roof.

An interior photo of an office space with exposed brick walls and floors.
The Packing House is LEED Gold certified and received funding from HTCs.

New Lives for Old Buildings

We have transformed dozens of existing buildings to serve new purposes. The following are selected examples from our portfolio of adaptive reuse projects.

HOUSING

If only a small percentage of underutilized commercial buildings were converted to housing, it could create thousands of units of much-needed housing while also reducing the carbon footprint of existing buildings.
COMMERCIAL TO RESIDENTIAL CONVERSIONS: A GUIDEBOOK TO AVAILABLE FEDERAL RESOURCES

We have adapted a wide range of existing structures to serve as housing, including high-rise office towers, schools, department stores, and even a parking garage. While buildings with deep floor plates can present challenges for housing conversions, our designs maximize natural light through creative unit layouts, locating building amenities in the core, and sometimes adding vertical light wells. Housing units developed through adaptive reuse often have high ceilings, unique floor plans, and historic character that new construction just can’t match.

OFFICES

Ironically, at a time when older office buildings are languishing, there is strong demand for converting other building types into offices. Old industrial buildings, with their wide-span spaces, make for great open offices. We have transformed an embroidery factory, a tomato canning plant, and a brewery into high-quality and sustainable office spaces.

An interior photo of a coworking space with large industrial windows.
Once an embroidery factory, the Lion Brothers building now provides office and coworking spaces.

HOSPITALITY

Converting existing buildings into hotels presents many of the same challenges as housing conversions, with the additional problem of inserting food service and extensive back-of-house spaces. We are adept at working within quirky floor plates to create guest rooms and common spaces with historic character, as we’ve done at the Siren Hotel, Element Detroit, and Hotel Ulysses.

ARTS & CULTURE

Cultural organizations are often drawn to adaptive reuse projects because they understand the community value of reviving a vacant building. We have transformed several movie palaces to serve as arts venues, as well as a tobacco warehouse and a Coast Guard station. While many cultural organizations are non-profits and thus exempt from paying taxes, they can still benefit from HTCs through the creation of or a partnership with a tax-paying entity.

LEARNING

Universities are continually updating, reprogramming, and renovating campus buildings to fit current needs. Cutting-edge laboratories often require new buildings with specialized features, freeing up older lab buildings for reuse. We recently completed the transformation of a former science building at Coppin State University to house the College of Business, and we are working with Virginia Union University to convert its Industrial Hall into an art gallery and cultural space.

Looking Back to Build a Sustainable Future

Our message to developers, municipal planners, and owners of vacant buildings is this: Don’t tear down old buildings – reuse them instead!

Humanity’s needs from the built environment are constantly changing. In this moment, we need more housing and less office space – so we should convert office buildings to housing units. In the near future, artificial intelligence will likely change the ways in which we live and work, leading to further shifts in our requirements for our physical surroundings.

While we can’t know what the future holds, we can commit to adapting and reusing our buildings rather than tearing them down – because it’s good for the environment, it’s good for communities, and it’s a good investment.

An exterior photo of a 12-story mid-century building.
Our conversion of this office building to apartments preserved embodied carbon and created dense housing in a walkable urban neighborhood.

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