The Benefits of Adaptive Re-Use

“Cities need old buildings so badly it is probably impossible for vigorous streets and districts to grow without them. By old buildings I mean not museum-piece old buildings, not old buildings in an excellent and expensive state of rehabilitation—although these make fine ingredients—but also a good lot of plain, ordinary, low-value old buildings, including some rundown old buildings.”  Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Cities, 1961

Since the 1960’s and 70’s, adaptive re-use has been a prominent part of the tools that developers and architects use to create new, vigorous places.  There are a number of benefits to adaptive re-use:

  • Prime location
  • Context and vocabulary
  • In-place construction
  • Materials built with skill and character

There have been numerous studies around the world examining the benefits, if any, of adaptive re-use. They are often listed as historic areas, green development, and for cost savings. One of the most concise statements comes from Peter Bullen and Peter Love of Perth, Australia.

The analysis of the interviews revealed three key criteria are used to examine adaptive reuse decision making: capital investment; asset condition; and regulation. While financial criteria such as development and construction costs were the primary determinants influencing the decision (to) reuse or demolish, the physical condition of the asset juxtaposed with regulations were also considered.

As we work with developers, we find that first on the list is the development cost itself. But that is greatly influenced by the condition of the building and the cost of repairs. The last bit, regulation, is where the invisible hand of local government makes itself known. 

 Local zoning, traditionally assigning certain uses to certain areas, can be an encourager or a hindrance to adaptive re-use. The trigger for adaptive re-use is often the adaptive re-use of an entire neighborhood, changing its function to match new needs and new users. Zoning which recognizes the benefits of continued life in older areas has flexible tools, such as Arlington’s AEC provision, which allows for flexibility for the developer. Similarly, without going into detail, building codes can either encourage adaptive re-use or stop it cold.

A nice example of adaptive re-use is 1506 Magnolia Avenue in Fort Worth. Originally a very modest two story building, residential over commercial, it was joined by a small, single story-addition fronting the street. This pair housed a commercial florist. Over time, the florist added a large, two-story warehouse behind, invisible from the street to store his materials and production. The second floor was a hot house for his plants and flowers. Our client obtained the property and asked us first to redo the façade to bring the existing complex into a new relationship with Magnolia Street, an area recognized this year by the American Planning Association as one of the “Fifteen Best Places” in America. It is a good example of an entire area that has been adaptively re-used.FIRST.jpg#asset:7120


The elevation studies were exciting and the client went through the process of procuring construction costs for the work which turned out to be in budget. However, after considering the appropriateness of the structures, he requested a different approach because the two front buildings were cramped and wood frame structures wouldn’t pass muster with the building codes for more intense uses, he asked VLK to take another look at the project. In what the client describes as “design by demolition,” we were asked to study removing the two non-historical front buildings and renovating the existing two-story warehouse, creating a small public plaza in front. This project flow clearly demonstrates those three key conditions at work: capital investment, asset conditions, and regulation.


Adaptive re-use is a smart and effective tool in reinvigorating existing buildings and neighborhoods, keeping good parts of our urban areas dense and lively. Smart developers, investing dollars wisely, can make these properties an exciting part of the urban fabric.