Blog: Unlocking the potential of the Past

25 April 2024

Imaginative Reuse of Existing Buildings

Unlocking the potential of the Past: Imaginative Reuse of Existing Buildings 

Lee Davies, Director, Architect, Masterplanner and Conservation Architect at HNW Architects.

Lee is a RIBA accredited Conservation Architect and takes a progressive approach to conservation and adaptive reuse of existing buildings. In this thought piece, Lee discusses the tensions between creating new buildings and retrofitting existing ones, emphasising the increasing shift towards creative reuse of existing buildings and the benefits they can bring, balancing innovation and environmental sustainability, with a glimpse to the future.

What is adaptive reuse?

Adaptive reuse is the process of repurposing an existing building or structure, typically for a different use than its original design. Instead of demolition, which can be costly and wasteful, adaptive reuse involves modifying the building to accommodate new functions while preserving and, where appropriate, enhancing or reimagining its historic, architectural, or cultural significance.

This approach not only conserves valuable resources but also helps maintain the character and charm of buildings, contributing to the cultural fabric of an area.

Current approach to existing buildings

Generally, the conventional norm for clients and designers when faced with a site occupied by an existing building is to procure innovative and distinctive new buildings. Often, modifying existing buildings is viewed as less desirable, with the economic rationale usually favouring new build over retrofit or refurbishment.

Benefits of adaptive reuse and connecting with the past

Retaining and reusing existing buildings has proven to bring a variety of value. Research highlights the importance of conserving and protecting cultural heritage because of the wider benefits it provides to people, communities and society.

Contributing to cultural identity and sense of place

The repurposing of existing buildings connects us to and celebrates the past, bridging it with the present. A reuse approach retains unique character and sense of place for everyone to enjoy.

Recent evidence highlights that heritage is a significant source of pride for communities, as it reflects the distinctive history of an area. The term 'pride in place' refers to "the feeling of pride people can have for places they identify or associate themselves with" (Bonaiuto et al, 2020). This principle has been central to discussions surrounding the Government's 'Levelling Up' policy, acknowledging the role of culture and heritage in shaping people's relationships with their surroundings (DLUHC, 2022).

Social and economic impact

Repurposing existing buildings and preserving heritage assets offers numerous benefits: they contribute to community revitalisation, job creation, economic growth, and the enrichment of cultural capital and sense of place. Reuse represents a strategic investment that directly impacts local prosperity by leveraging the competitive advantages of historic buildings to attract businesses and investments, fostering community cohesion and boosting the local economy. Preserving the past not only distinguishes an area but also connects people to their roots, boosts self-esteem, and lays the groundwork for the future.

Historic environments act as economic catalysts, attracting businesses and investors and providing a competitive edge. Through repurposing and investment, communities can create vibrant spaces for diverse businesses to thrive, preserving heritage while stimulating economic activity and prosperity with their historic identity.

“Over the long term, places with strong, distinctive identities are more likely to prosper than places without them. Every place must identify its strongest, most distinctive features and develop them or run the risk of being all things to all persons and nothing special to any.”

Robert Merton Solow, Nobel Prize winning economist, in Licciardi et al, 2012.

Health and wellbeing

Older buildings help connect us to where we live, give a sense of uniqueness and improve our personal wellbeing. Heritage transcends the past and enriches our everyday lives.

The Culture Heritage Capital programme and Historic England has uncovered significant links between our cultural heritage and personal wellbeing. Their research demonstrates the importance of preserving existing buildings as a positive influence on our collective future wellbeing. Also, extensive evidence suggests that engagement with heritage plays a key role in improving mental health, alleviating anxiety and stress, and increasing happiness and life satisfaction. Everyday interaction with our past can enhance community wellbeing and make a positive contribution to public health.

Climate emergency and environmental sustainability

The traditional practice of demolishing and rebuilding is facing increasing scrutiny and challenge, with economic viability in light of climate change and resource scarcity. Imaginative reuse offers environmental advantages compared to new construction and plays an important role in reducing embodied carbon emissions.

Climate change and resource demands are reshaping design approaches, prompting an urgent need to adopt smarter resource retention and reuse strategies while considering the environmental impact of construction and building carbon footprints.

Construction activities contribute significantly to resource depletion and generates waste. Despite progress, efforts to achieve zero emissions in the building sector by 2050 remain largely insufficient.

Historic buildings are generally built from locally sourced natural materials and minimal processing, contain substantial embodied carbon, often expended centuries ago, in pre-industrial, low energy environments. Embracing a circular economy ethos seeks to prioritise historic and existing assets to capitalise on their inherent embodied energy and existing materials. This approach reduces reliance on new materials, promotes material reuse, and encourages durability, repair and maintenance (Foster and Kreinin, 2020).

Looking ahead

There will be an increasing demand for a more imaginative approach to retaining and modifying existing buildings, driven by growing acceptance, supportive guidance, and legislative measures.  

The pursuit of a circular economy continues to gain momentum, with emerging initiatives such as material passports increasing in prevalence – recording what we put into current new buildings for future disassembly and reuse. A ‘cradle to cradle’ approach aims to recover and reuse all building materials and structures at the end of their lifespan, making built-in adaptability and disassembly approaches more commonplace.

The need to rethink reuse within the industry is being propelled by legislative actions. For instance, proposed policies to make Westminster a ‘retrofit first’ city aim to compel developers to explore retrofit options before resorting to demolition. These policies also advocate for changes to support sustainable architectural practices and achieve carbon reduction targets.

Such policy shifts will challenge the traditional demolition approach and accelerate the upgrading of existing buildings to meet modern standards and environmental requirements. New policies will also encourage developers to maximise recycling from existing buildings to minimise the environmental impact. Embodied carbon emission targets, guided by benchmarks set by the London Energy Transformation Initiative (LETI), will apply to all new developments.

Overall, there will be a continued transition in design and construction practice towards greater consideration of environmental sustainability, the reuse of existing resources, and creative approaches to the adaptive reuse of existing buildings.

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