transformation month

Here’s What “Adaptive Reuse” Means, According to an Expert

published Sep 16, 2022
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A church in upstate New York in autumn
Credit: Cathy Kovarik/

If you’ve ever driven by an apartment building that used to be a warehouse or a bar that used to be a church, you’ve seen something called “adaptive reuse” in action. 

What is adaptive reuse?

Rachael Grochowski, founder and principal architect of RHG A+D in Montclair, New Jersey, explains adaptive reuse pretty simply: It’s “any project where you’re finding new ways to make an underutilized building or space vibrant and active again.”

Adaptive reuse projects take buildings that have served their original purpose and now need some imagination and inspiration to give them new life. Grochowski says she often uses the term “repurposing building” as a way to make the practice more accessible.

From smaller projects like converting an old school into a home to the expansive Ritz-Carlton Residences project that turned a six-hospital complex into a luxury multi-family housing development in Miami Beach, adaptive reuse projects highlight just what we can do when we let our imagination see what’s possible. In one of the most famous examples of an adaptive reuse project, the Gare d’Orsay train station was transformed into the Musée d’Orsay in the mid-1980s.

Why is adaptive reuse important?

Adaptive reuse gives new life to buildings that may otherwise become abandoned and fall into disrepair. It also allows new individuals and groups to create new memories in a space that holds the history of our past.

“When I use the word repurpose, it reminds me that there’s a history and that history does not get erased. That history is part of the structure,” Grochowski says. In one of her projects, the original structure was a church. Because the size of the congregation had shrunk, the interior needed to be repurposed into a smaller church with boutique offices filling the remaining space. 

Grochowski emphasized the lineage of the building. “We had the history of the church, and there’s a new church in it now and there are new memories, new businesses, and new experience objects.” She was able to take much of the structural wood and turn it into a furniture line that uses raw and reclaimed materials to create new and distinctive designs.

Not only does adaptive reuse preserve the architecture and character of older buildings, it also mitigates waste generated by demolition projects — an estimated 600 million tons in 2018 — which can make adaptive reuse projects more sustainable and environmentally friendly than new buildings.

What challenges does adaptive reuse face?

It’s easy to see an abandoned building and think that it should be fixed up and used for something, but the reality is, according to Grochowski, “old and underused buildings have old systems which require updating to meet current energy standards and to meet the needs of new uses. This part of adaptive reuse can be costly and one must plan accordingly.”

Zoning laws can also hinder adaptive reuse projects. Depending on the local government’s zoning laws and regulations, it may be difficult to rezone a commercial lot to a residential lot that allows for an apartment building or condos. Each local jurisdiction has their own policies, so the process may look different in different areas.

To convert commercial properties into residential ones, building codes must also be taken into consideration as commercial and residential buildings have different building regulations that they must follow. Converting a commercial property of one kind into a commercial property of another — for instance, an office building into a community center — may be easier depending on local zoning laws.