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What is Adaptive Reuse? 5 Project Examples in 2024

What is Adaptive Reuse? 5 Project Examples in 2024

When cities look to invest in development projects, everyone tends to focus their excitement on the new: a new apartment complex, park, office building or shopping center. But these projects often face numerous obstacles, most notably the need to find space for them.

Adaptive reuse provides an alternative by transforming existing spaces that are no longer being used. For many involved in commercial construction, adaptive reuse enables the possibility of accessing prime real estate and revitalizing urban areas. Consider, for example, New York City, where there is currently 74,582,671 square feet of vacant office space — enough to fill 27 Empire State buildings. Yet New York City’s housing availability is the worst it’s been in over 50 years.

As lifestyles and priorities change, our buildings need to change along with us. Adaptive reuse makes this possible by turning office buildings into apartments or factories into co-working spaces. The most ambitious adaptive reuse projects are often the most beautiful, taking an abandoned space and breathing new life into it.

Read on to learn how adaptive reuse works and how it can benefit the environment. We’ll also show some real examples of adaptive reuse, but you can jump straight to our imaginative renderings for how currently abandoned spaces could be transformed.

What Is Adaptive Reuse?

Adaptive reuse is the act of finding a new purpose for an existing structure. For example, taking old Navy barracks and turning them into a high school would be the process of adaptive reuse.

There are thousands of unused structures across the United States — factories, office buildings, shopping malls, train stations — that offer an opportunity for creating a new space without actually constructing a new building.

When considering whether to undertake an adaptive reuse project or demolish a building, developers usually take a few factors into consideration:

  • Building Condition: Some buildings are beautiful from the outside, but structurally, they are so damaged that restoring them is simply impossible.
  • Government Regulations: Sometimes, certain buildings are granted landmark status and can only be modified in specific ways, which makes undertaking many projects difficult.
  • Materials Value: When the materials of an existing structure are sufficiently valuable, it can often be more cost-effective to reuse certain elements of a building rather than procure entirely new materials.

In addition to these considerations, developers are also increasingly attracted to adaptive reuse because of its environmental benefits.

5 Real-World Adaptive Reuse Projects

Adaptive reuse is not a new idea, though it has exploded in popularity during the last decade, especially when it comes to adapting unused office spaces. According to RentCafe, the number of apartments scheduled for conversion from unused offices increased from 12,100 to 55,300 between the years 2021 and 2024.

While adaptive reuse is most common in big cities like New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and San Francisco, other historic cities like Detroit, Michigan and Bentonville, Arkansas, are also following suit. Below, we’ve collected a few examples of impressive transformations that have taken place in these cities.

1. Ford’s Corktown Campus: Iconic Rail Station Turned Innovation District

Once a rail station, Michigan Central Station is an innovation campus home to a 30-acre, 1.2 million square foot commercial district. This area now contains modern workspaces, maker labs, open workspaces and a new state-of-the-art mobility testing environment. At its core resides a renewed Michigan Central Station that houses public art, local restaurants and other gathering spaces for the community.

old-mcs-ford-innovation-campusImage from: Ford Motors

Corktown is Detroit, Michigan’s oldest neighborhood and was previously home to Michigan Central, a historic rail station that operated for 74 years. Opened in 1913, this rail station served more than 4,000 passengers a day at its peak.

Over the years, commuting by train became less popular, leading Michigan Central Station to close up shop on January 5, 1988. Twenty years later, Ford announced plans for reconstruction of the building and surrounding areas to become the mobility innovation capital of the world.

2. The Momentary: Cheese Factory to Contemporary Art

It was once an orchard, then a flour mill and then, in 1947, it became a Kraft cheese factory. Now, The Momentary is a hub for resident artists. From theater and film to music and the culinary arts, you can find it all under this one roof. As an extension of Crystal Bridges, The Momentary is a place for the community and visitors to come together and take part in the art of today.

vintage-bentonville-the-momentaryImages from: Vintage Bentonville and Visit Bentonville

Now hosting dozens of artists each day, this building has a storied history that dates back to 1673 when the site was part of the Osage hunting grounds. In the early 1900s, this plot of land contained the apple orchard of the renowned architect Charles A. Blanck. Later, in 1947, Kraft Foods built a cheese factory on the grounds — a factory that closed in 2013.

In 2016, Crystal Bridges teamed up with Wheeler Kearns Architects to create a satellite contemporary art space where all are welcome. The Momentary officially opened its doors in February 2020 and now plays host to breathtaking art exhibitions, impactful musical guests, contemporary dance workshops and more.

3. Emporium in San Francisco: Theater Turned Arcade

The Emporium in San Francisco is a sprawling retro arcade bar with 44 arcade games and 17 pinball machines, plus live music and events. Just a few years ago, however, the same building was just the abandoned home of the Harding Theater, a movie and music venue that originally opened in 1926.

harding-theater-sf-emporiumImage from Emporium SF

Once a lively space featuring acts like The Grateful Dead, the Harding Theater eventually closed for good and sat empty for decades. When a developer sought to demolish the building, the city declared it a landmark, so it was transformed instead. The original facade of the building was maintained, but its interior was retrofitted and refurbished to create a modern and delightful space to experience classic games like Galaga and Dig Dug.

4. Google’s LA Headquarters: Airplane Hangar Transformation

Google’s campus in Los Angeles is housed entirely within a historic airplane hangar once owned by Howard Hughes. The hangar was once used to manufacture the Spruce Goose, a massive aircraft intended to be used during World War 2, though it was never actually used for that purpose. After the Spruce Goose left the hangar to be housed elsewhere, the gigantic structure was abandoned for a number of years.

hughes-hangar-google-officeImage from Vox

When Google purchased the space, they took an adaptive approach rather than demolishing the hangar. While preserving much of the building’s wooden exterior, the inside was retrofitted with concrete and steel to provide a more solid structure. Additionally, multiple stories were added, creating a mesmerizing cascading effect with mezzanines where people can gaze upon the impressive hangar structure.

5. New York’s High Line: From Elevated Train to Bustling Green Space

New York City’s High Line Park is one of the most well-known green spaces in the world, but its origins are far removed from plants and park benches. The raised 1.5-mile park, which features hundreds of native plants, was once the site of an elevated railway line that transported food along the west side of the city. While it was once a vital part of New York’s infrastructure, the elevated railway eventually fell out of favor as trucks began handling more and more deliveries.

highline-railway-parkImage from High Line

Rather than demolish the railway, New York City opened a contest to solicit ideas for adaptive reuse in the early 2000s. Hundreds of ideas — like a mile-long lap pool or roller coaster — were considered, but ultimately the city settled on a park. The new design retained many elements of the original railway but added landscaping, sitting areas and art installations. Overall, the park is a perfect encapsulation of the beauty that emerges from blending old and new through adaptive reuse.

Imagined Transformations of Unused Spaces

While adaptive use is growing in popularity, there are still tons of opportunities to convert unused buildings into impressive new spaces for living, leisure and work.

We found three abandoned buildings in New York, San Francisco and New Orleans and created renderings to show what those spaces could look like if they were restored and renovated.

Read on to see a subway station become a library, a train yard turned into an amphitheater and a power plant converted into a climbing gym.

Abandoned Subway Station Becomes Literary Paradise

New York City’s very first subway station was built below City Hall in lower Manhattan at the beginning of the twentieth century, but it has been closed since 1945. Adorned with brick and colored tiles as well as chandeliers and stained-glass skylights, the space is a perfect candidate for adaptive reuse.


City-Hall-Subway-Rendering A reimagined look at the City Hall subway station as a public library, rendered by BigRentz.

Our reimagination of this space creates an underground library filled with shelves of books. Additionally, an antique subway car sits on the tracks with seating inside for patrons who want to read a book before checking it out.

Vacant Train Yard Restored as Outdoor Performance Space

In the early twentieth century, the Southern Pacific Railroad constructed a large turntable south of San Francisco. Surrounding the turntable was a huge train storage building called the Bayshore Roundhouse. Once a vital part of the Bay Area’s infrastructure with more than 25 outbound tracks, the Bayshore Roundhouse is now totally abandoned and partially destroyed.

Bayshore-RoundhouseImage: LPS.1, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons Bayshore-Roundhouse-RenderingA transformation of the Bayshore Roundhouse into an amphitheater, rendered by BigRentz.

Our vision for the revitalization of this beautiful structure involves the creation of an amphitheater as well as luxury boxes within the original roundhouse. The new Bayshore Roundhouse Amphitheater would host concerts, comedians and stage plays with views of the beautiful San Francisco Bay.

Dilapidated Power Plant Energized by Climbing Gym Renovation

The once lively Market Street power plant, situated on the outskirts of New Orleans’ downtown district, has sat unused for four decades. Originally built at the turn of the twentieth century, it provided power for thousands of households in New Orleans before shutting down after nearly seventy years in service. Despite its broken windows, the stout brick building is a testament to a classical architectural style.

Market-St-Power-PlantImage from Michael Winters Market-Street-Power-Plant-Rendering A re-energized power plant turned climbing gym, rendered by BigRentz.

In our conceptualization for this building’s second life, we have gutted the interior of the space and created a rock climbing gym with walls several stories tall. Some of the plant’s original design elements stay, paying homage to its original purpose, and the glass in the beautiful arched windows has been replaced to allow natural light inside.

Adaptive Reuse FAQ

Learn more about the benefits of adaptive reuse with the answers to these frequently asked questions.

What Are the Environmental Benefits of Adaptive Reuse?

As concerns about the environment grow, the construction industry is going green. While there’s a large emphasis on green buildings, which have environmental benefits after construction, a growing trend shows the industry aimed at finding more sustainable building techniques. Adaptive reuse has several environmental benefits:

  • Reduced Materials Usage: Many building materials are scarce, and producing them has a negative effect on the environment. Reusing existing structures reduces the need to create new materials.
  • Avoid Demolition: One of the most environmentally harmful aspects of construction is the demolition of old structures. Adaptive reuse completely skips this portion of the process and the resulting negative effects.
  • Eliminating Hazardous Materials: Older buildings often contain hazardous materials, and adaptive reuse offers the possibility of removing these from the environment and replacing them with more sustainable alternatives.

While adaptive reuse is not always the perfect solution, it frequently offers a sustainable alternative to new construction. Another example of sustainable construction is modular building, which enables buildings to be disassembled and reused in different configurations to account for changing circumstances.

Is There a Difference Between Adaptive Reuse and Restoration?

While adaptive reuse may require restoring some aspects of a building, the two construction methods are different. Adaptive reuse refers to the process of taking a building that was previously built for one purpose and using it for another. This process is essential for adapting to the needs of ever-changing local economies and ensuring the longevity of the building.

Restoration, on the other hand, is the process of renovating the building to bring it back to its original purpose. This is done by removing, rebuilding or replacing various materials and features for historical accuracy.

What Is the Most Famous Adaptive Reuse Project?

The Tate Modern Museum in London, England, wasn’t always the art museum locals and tourists love today. Instead, this great building was once known as London’s Bankside Power Station, which operated for only three decades from the late 1940s until it closed its doors in 1981. The building was decommissioned for nearly 20 years until the museum opened its doors in 2000.

The architect’s goal was to create a vast public space that incorporated historical aspects of the building into modern-day construction. With its vast halls and various interior galleries, this building hosts millions of visitors each year and is known as the most visited modern art museum in the world.

The Future of Construction Involves the Past

Adaptive reuse is an important part of redeveloping cities over time. In the best cases, adaptive reuse projects retain timeless architectural styles while finding new spaces for people and businesses. Furthermore, these sorts of projects can help reduce the environmental impact of construction by reusing materials and avoiding demolition.

Not all buildings can be repurposed, but the goal in creating new buildings should always be to take a long-term view and imagine how they could be transformed whenever new needs arise.

In any case, all construction companies should consider adaptive reuse as a creative approach to solving building challenges. Old factories, theaters and office buildings are waiting all across the nation to become the most sought-after new restaurants, apartment buildings, clubs and music venues.

Like any renovation, adaptive reuse projects may require heavy machinery for tasks like demolition, landscaping and more. Thankfully, BigRentz has everything you need. From excavators to man lifts, you can rent all the equipment you need for any construction project.

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