Adaptive Reuse

The glossary entries are the result of a collaborative process among OpenHeritage consortium partners and have undergone an internal review. However, they only express the perspective of the authors listed under each term, not of all partners. You can find information on the glossary production process and the full glossary here.

John Pendlebury
Newcastle University, Newcastle upon Tyne, United Kingdom;

Loes Veldpaus
Newcastle University, Newcastle upon Tyne, United Kingdom;

Short definition

Adaptive reuse suggests the change of function of a building or place from one use to another, which requires some level of material change. While strongly associated with the conservation of buildings that have been considered of historic value, it is a term that might apply to any building and is increasingly being applied to a diverse range of contexts, including places and landscapes. Adaptive reuse projects range from careful schemes of architectural conservation to more radical interventions, involving substantial demolition and change. Similarly, adaptive reuse projects might be small-scale community-based projects or prestigious commissions undertaken by “starchitects”. Integral to adaptive reuse beyond material change is communicative intent. Material interventions are used as a communicative device, as an aesthetic strategy, and/ or to signify other social and political messages.

Key discussions around the term

Buildings have been put to new uses throughout history as part of the natural evolution of place. The term ‘adaptive reuse’ appeared in the early 1970s at a moment when in the “West” modern, progressive architecture and planning was intent on the large-scale reconstruction of urban areas. A standard response to obsolescence was to demolish and build new. Recycling buildings and putting them to a new use became, therefore, a distinctive approach that stood counter to this dominant practice.

The evolution of adaptive reuse can be traced to: (1) extending the subject of heritage protection, which began to close off the option to demolish and redevelop; (2) evolving architectural praxis, through the work of Carlo Scarpa and others, that sought to define new dialogues between old and new fabric, and; (3) countervailing ideas of urbanism, informed by, for example, Jane Jacobs that placed an emphasis on the utility of old, adaptable buildings as part of flexible and vital urban places. More recently we might add to this a discourse of sustainability, advocating reusing and recycling rather than demolishing the built environment. Much of writing on adaptive reuse reflects that it is a practice, done rather than theorised, and is case study based. More recently, some theoretical texts have emerged, including Wong (2017), Plevoets and Cleempoel (2019), and Stone (2019). However, the literature remains strongly architectural, orientated to considering adaptive reuse as a design problem. There is thus a need for greater understanding of the cultural location of adaptive reuse, and how the reuse process transforms social and heritage value, and which actors are advocating for, or against, reuse. Furthermore, it is important to consider these issues in relation to community-led campaigns, with increased space for informal and ‘bottom up’ practices and participatory processes. Multiple local, community-led, counterculture projects across the world show alternative trajectories of development responding to local issues as well as global challenges.

Reference list

Plevoets, Bie, and Koenraad Van Cleempoel. Adaptive Reuse of the Built Heritage: Concepts and Cases of an Emerging Discipline. London New York: Routledge, 2019.

Stone, Sally. UnDoing Buildings: Adaptive Reuse and Cultural Memory. New York: Routledge, 2019.

Wong, Liliane. Adaptive Reuse: Extending the Lives of Buildings. Basel: Birkhäuser, 2016.