Adaptive Reuse – BONUS


What It Is

Adaptive reuse is the process of reusing an existing site or building for a purpose other than what it was originally intended for. Unlike simple historic conservation, adaptive reuse transforms underused buildings and sites into locations that are economically useful. Examples include the renovation of abandoned warehouses into studio spaces and the use of abandoned parking lots for open-air markets such as farmers’ markets. Less commonly, the term can refer to the use of salvaged materials to construct or renovate an edifice. An example of this might be repurposing the wood from barns for flooring in a new home.


Why It Matters

It is often said that the greenest building is the one that’s already standing. This is in no small part because of how much waste construction produces. The EPA estimates that well over 50% of the content in US landfills and dumps can be attributed to construction and demolition.[1] Reducing waste and the use of new materials through adaptive reuse can also reduce costs and positively impact your business’s bottom line in other ways, while preserving historic structures can foster good relations with the surrounding community. 


Economic Benefits

Given the wide scope of projects that fall under the heading of “adaptive reuse,” upfront costs vary widely. Yet several studies suggest that a holistic view of costs and benefits often puts adaptive reuse ahead of new construction. A study in the International Journal of Heritage Studies surveyed adaptive reuse projects in Ontario, Canada, found that while “some reuse projects are more costly than new building but not all and the return on investment for heritage development is almost always higher.”[2] Another estimate suggests that adaptive reuse costs 15-20% less than new construction.[3]

Urban centers, which are often the focus of adaptive reuse projects, can be particularly advantageous locations for organizations. In recent years, the population of urban centers in the United States has grown faster than the suburbs for the first time in several decades.[4] For organizations for which foot traffic, proximity to local government agencies, or proximity to complementary business ventures are beneficial, urban centers can be ideal locations. Local residents and tourists are likely to be attracted to locations in which aesthetics and historic integrity of the space have been maintained. Additionally, local governments have an interest in increasing tax revenue from derelict spaces that are currently generating little to no income for the city. Many consequently provide incentives to offset some of the costs of renovation.

Historic buildings may also include materials and features that would be prohibitively expensive to replicate on a new building, such as extensive use of stone and brick, or hand-sculpted adornment. Salvaged materials that aren’t necessary for your renovation can be sold. This might include specialized equipment, fixtures, signage, or building materials like salvaged wood and steel.


Environmental Benefits

Adapting existing buildings and sites reduces the material inputs and waste associated with new construction by reusing materials that would otherwise be demolished and discarded. Typically, this will include at minimum the footing, façade, and exterior of the building. The EPA has estimated that more than 50% of the waste in landfills is due to construction and demolition. On the other end of the supply chain, reduced material inputs reduces pressure on ecosystems around the world from which new materials are sourced.

Renovation also presents the opportunity to incorporate green technologies and materials into historic buildings to improve their overall energy efficiency. Historic building may already have design features that maximize the use of natural light and passive heating and cooling. This could include higher ceilings in warmer climates, large windows that allow in natural light, and heavy, insulating exterior walls.

Adaptive reuse in urban centers can also improve community and environmental health by encouraging walking and the use of public transportation. By reducing the need for new development, adaptive reuse limits urban sprawl. Green spaces can also be reintroduced into urban settings through adaptive reuse, by reclaiming empty lots as parks or setting aside a portion of site as a green recreational area for employees and/or local residents. 


Social and Civic Benefits

Finding uses for architecturally and historically significant structures that have outlived their original purpose often aligns with the community’s interest in preserving the look and character of their city. Similarly, former industrial sites and abandoned buildings that detract from a town’s aesthetics can be transformed into attractive commercial centers.

Since adaptive reuse projects are often complex and unique, they may require planners, architects, and artisans with specialized skill sets. While this need for specialized labor can add to the challenge of undertaking a project, these projects create a market for the work of skilled artisans. Since costs skew more heavily towards labor than in new construction, adaptive reuse projects often have a multiplier effect.

Reuse is often encouraged by local governments seeking to transform vacant and underutilized spaces that are not only not bringing in tax revenue, but may also attract vandals and homeless persons. Adapting a site or locating in an already adapted building can signal to potential customers and employees your commitment to the community in which you live and work. 


Getting Started

As a first step, let someone else do the heavy lifting: consider renting a space that has already been adapted, or that will need minimal renovations for your purposes. When researching locations that have been adapted for commercial use, consider the following:

  • Your customers.
    • How does your space and location shape customers’ experience of and access to your products and services?
    • Could green features of the renovation, the building’s history, or the neighborhood’s story enhance your brand? 
  • Your existing and/or ideal workforce.
    • Where do they live in relation to the site and how do they commute to work?
    • What building amenities and neighborhood features would help with retention?
    • Features to look for include public transportation and easy access to restaurants, gyms, and green spaces.
  • The benefits and drawbacks of the site and location for your industry.
    • You may need to account for proximity to suppliers, presence of complementary businesses and organizations, parking needs, special equipment, or space requirements.
  • The costs associated with the site.
    • This includes rent, utilities, and maintenance.
    • Depending on how the renovation was done, will the location have higher or lower than expected utilities?
    • Which party is responsible for maintenance costs?
    • What basic renovations are needed make the space suitable for your organization?


Going Further

Consider a small-scale renovation of your space. This can be a way to enhance your business’s image and invest in features that will save the organization money in the long-term. When planning a renovation, consider the following:

  • Updates that will pay for themselves.
    • This includes energy-efficient lighting, programmable thermostats, ceiling fans, and low-flow fixtures. These investments can decrease energy and water costs.
  • The health of the environment and your employees.
    • With interior renovation projects, these two goals are often the same, as air pollution is often worse indoors than outdoors.
    • Repaint with low-VOC paints, refinish and seal floors with water-based finishes, and add indoor plants.
    • Update your ventilation system to ensure that the air exchange rate is sufficient to prevent the build up of indoor air pollutants.
  • Source used, salvaged, and sustainable materials.
    • When updating office furniture and décor, look for items through Craigslist, auctions, business closing sales, and resale shops.
    • Your local green builder can instruct you about sustainable materials for custom built items.
  • Sell, donate, or recycle leftover and salvaged materials from your renovation.
  • Seek out city and county government historic renovation incentives.
    • These can take a number of forms, including income tax credits.
    • You will need to find out if your property is eligible for the incentive program. Former industrial sites are often not protected by historic preservation covenants, which makes them easier to adapt. However, they may also not qualify for renovation incentives.
    • If your site qualifies, incentives usually apply to renovation projects of all sizes.[5]


Advanced Steps

These are starting points for undertaking a large-scale renovation of an existing building or site. When attempting a large-scale renovation, consider the following:

  • Hire an expert.
    • Find an architect or engineer that specializes in green building and adaptive reuse.
    • Reuse projects are often highly individualized. Bringing in an expert who can anticipate costs and problems can save you headaches later on.
  • Zoning restrictions.
    • Find out how the site is currently zoned.
    • To make a reuse project financially viable, the site may need to be zoned for another use or as a mixed-use development.
    • Extremely large sites, such as former warehouses and factories, will likely need to be zoned as mixed-use in order to make your investment financially tenable.
  • Building codes.
    • Historic buildings were built to specifications that rarely meet modern building codes.
    • Some city governments are willing to consider exceptions to building codes if those exceptions meet the safety standards that the code seeks to maintain. Find out what you can about your local government’s history with adaptive reuse projects.
  • Presence of protective covenants and/or a conservation district.
    • Protective covenants and conservation districts encourage historic preservation by creating guidelines for the renovation and maintenance of historic structures.
    • Former homes and government buildings are more likely to have covenants or be in a district than former industrial sites.
    • Most covenants only restrict how a government agency can alter a site, and do not affect private owners. Laws vary by state and municipality, however.
    • Even if these conservation measures don’t legally affect how you alter a site, they can serve as a baseline for preserving the historic integrity of a building. They may also alert you to potential community stakeholders with an interest in how the building is preserved.
  • Thoroughly inspect the building in its current form.
    • Assess the integrity of the exterior and roof, and determine needed replacements and repairs.
    • Assess the integrity of the interior structure, and determine what can be reused. Consider design features that could present renovation challenges. Low floor to ceiling height, for instance, can prevent easy installation of HVAC ducts.
    • Determine needed changes to bring the building up to code. Will the building need elevators or more fire exits?
    • Determine if there are hazardous materials that need remediation, such as lead paint or asbestos.
    • Note the architectural and design features that you want to preserve or highlight in your renovation.
  • Choose deconstruction over demolition when possible.
    • Deconstruction or selective deconstruction of a structure allows you to salvage reusable materials.
    • Deconstruction will likely increase labor costs, but these may be offset in part by decreased cost of materials.
  • Use materials that will last the life of building.
    • Build with not just your tenure of the site in mind, but with future tenants in mind as well.
    • Many historic structures have outlived their newer counterparts precisely because they were originally designed and built with quality materials. 
  • Sell or recycle salvaged materials.
    • Salvaging and recycling reduces the amount of waste that goes into a landfill.
    • Sales can offset the cost of new and new-to-you materials.
  • Maximize the energy and water efficiency of the building.
    • Choose windows and doors that will increase energy efficiency.
    • Install efficient building systems.
    • Consider novel approaches to energy and water conservation, including rooftop gardens to improve building insulation, geothermal heat pumps, and atriums to allow in natural light.
  • Incorporate green spaces into your renovation.
    • Greenery in urban spaces reduces the heat island effect of cities.
    • Green areas, such as courtyards, serve as attractive spaces for building occupants and visitors to relax in.
    • Landscape with native plants or plants that are suited to your climate.


Case Study

 SEEDS, Durham, NC

For SEEDS, adaptive reuse dovetailed neatly with the organization’s mission of spreading awareness about sustainable agriculture in low-income neighborhoods. SEEDS developed its site in a gradual manner that matched the expanding needs and resources of organization. The development and renovation of SEEDS’ site over the past twenty years has been made possible by its reciprocal relationship with surrounding communities.

SEEDS’ home base is situated along Gilbert and Elizabeth Streets in Northeast Central Durham, NC. It includes a small, hundred-year-old building and two acres of land. The land is in two parcels, separated by the road. SEEDS originally leased the abandoned location, which had become an unofficial dumping site, in 1994 for $1 a year and maintenance costs.

SEEDS transformed the site with grants and in-kind, volunteer, and monetary donations. The site now houses 25 gardening plots available at low cost to nearby residents, a demonstration garden, and a quarter acre urban farm. The farm is run by Durham Inner-City Gardeners (DIG). The program is run by and for teens. DIG teaches them gardening and business skills, about food security, and the environmental impact of farming. Additionally, the building and site house a number of other gardening and community-oriented programs, including summer camps, after-school programs, and workshops for K-8 classrooms.

SEEDS founders and staff credit the transformation of the derelict site with inspiring the improvement of the houses and lawns in the neighborhood. By design and example, SEEDS has also helped start individual, school, and community gardens in other Durham locations. In 2000, the organization was instrumental in restarting the Durham Farmers’ Market, where the DIG program now sells its produce.

The building that houses SEEDS has been transformed and repurposed to meet the organization’s needs over the years, though none of its renovations were thoroughgoing or elaborate. In 2010 they bought the site outright with the intention of renovating the building. The original structure, they estimate, was built around 1910.

SEEDS broke ground in April 2013, and anticipates finishing the renovation in August. The construction will add a teaching kitchen, programming space, mud-room, improved insulation, and a solar-power water heater, along with other updates (including fixing the leaky roof). This will expand the space from 3,200 to 5,000 square feet. The renovation is being funded by a capital campaign launched in late 2012, and has a total construction budget of $900,000. SEEDS renovation is being undertaken by designer MHAworks and builder C.T. Wilson Construction.



“About.” SEEDS. Accessed 12 June 2013.

Ariail, Kate Dobbs. “A SEEDS Grows in Durham.” IndyWeek. 4 October 2000. Accessed 12 June 2013. 

Bellamy, Cammie. “SEEDS celebrates new growth with Durham community.” The Durham Voice. 11 April 2013. Accessed 12 June 2013.

Flandreau, Melissa. “SEEDS of Growth.” Durham Magazine. Accessed 12 June 2013.

Pates, Hayley. “SEEDS Harvest Dinner a community celebration.” The Durham Voice. 19 September 2012. Accessed 12 June 2013. 

“SEEDS.” C.T. Wilson Construction. Accessed 12 June 2013. 


Resources for More Information



Other Sources 




Adaptive reuse of a site is a highly individualized and often elaborate undertaking that may or may not make sense for your particular business. Given an increasing interest in adaptive reuse, you may find that renting an adapted space makes more sense, and will allow your business to incur the economic, environmental, and social benefits of these projects. 


Glossary of Related Terms

Brownfield sites: Underused or abandoned industrial and commercial sites, often in need of remediation due to the presence of environmental contaminants.

Historic conservation: Any effort to conserve historically and architecturally significant components of the built environment, including buildings, public art and monuments, and altered landscapes (such as parks).

Remediation: The removal of environmental contaminants from a building or site. Examples include removal of soil contaminated with hazardous waste and harmful building materials, such as asbestos and lead paint.

Protective covenants, conservation districts: Protective covenants are provisions in deeds that restrict the use, alteration, and even sale of a building. When used to further historic conservation projects, they often entail limits on how the building can be altered. Depending on your region, some protective covenants in the deed may be illegal but have simply not been removed (protective covenants were used to restrict residential sales to certain races until the Supreme Court declared this illegal, for instance). Conservation districts designate historically significant neighborhoods. Not all buildings in a district have to “contribute” to the historic significance of the area. Usually these districts only shape city planning decisions, and do not affect the rights of individual owners to alter their property as they wish.

Building codes: Building codes are a set of rules that create minimum safety standards for construction. These vary depending on the nature and use of the building.

Zoning: Zoning ordinances regulate the use and characteristics of buildings depending on their location in a city. These are designed to maintain the integrity of city sectors (for instance, by preventing industries from setting up shop next to neighborhood or to limit the proximity of liquor stores to schools) and to maintain a coherent, general appearance (by placing height restrictions on building in non-commercial zones, for instance).

Air exchange rate: Rate at which outside air replaces indoor air in a given building. Replacement of indoor air is an important way of preventing the unsafe build up of indoor air pollutants and allergens.

Deconstruction vs. demolition: In demolition, you simply remove hazardous materials and then knock every that you don’t want down, creating rubble that will be dumped into a landfill. Deconstruction is “unbuilding,” taking a structure apart piece by piece, in order to be able to better reuse or recycle building materials. “Selective deconstruction” combines both approaches by removing high value materials before demolishing the rest.

[1] Compare estimates of total municipal solid waste and construction and demolition waste on these EPA resources: “Municipal Solid Waste,” US Environmental Protection Agency, and US Environmental Protection Agency, RCRA in Focus: Construction, Demolition, and Renovation EPA-530-K-04-005 (September 2004),

[2] Shipley, Robert, Steve Utz, and Michael Parsons, “Does Adaptive Reuse Pay? A Study of the Business of Building Renovation in Ontario, Canada,” in International Journal of Heritage Studies 12, no. 6 (November 2006): 505.

[3] “Adaptive Reuse,” in Green Cities: An A-to-Z Guide, eds. Nevin Cohen and Paul Robbins (SAGE Publications, Inc., 2010): 5-8, accessed 12 June 2013, DOI: 10.4135/9781412973816.

[4] US Census Bureau, 2010 Census Special Reports, Patterns of Metropolitan and Micropolitan Population Change: 2000 to 2010, C2010SR-01 (Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office, 2012), 13,

[5] For example see: “Historic Tax Credits,” Preservation Durham, accessed 12 June 2013,

Shannon recently completed a master’s degree in Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Her research focuses on the religious dimensions of social and environmental justice movements in the twentieth-century American South. Before moving to North Carolina, Shannon...
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