Adaptive Reuse of Urban Structures

Editors note on our Sustainable Cities series:

2012 marked the first time in human history a majority of the world’s population lived in urban areas. Cities can be major drivers of economic growth and human development, and because city governments are often more politically flexible than national or international institutions, they can also act as laboratories for social innovation. But they can at the same time be centers of disease outbreaks and poverty traps. How successfully cities are able to generate sustainable solutions to their challenges will determine development outcomes for billions of the world’s population. Over the next year our series on Sustainable Cities will showcase how some cities are tackling this problem.

In 1990, Belgian journalist Jean-Claude Defossé wrote a now well-known book titled Le Petit Guide des Grands Travaux Inutiles or The Little Guide to Large and Useless Construction Projects. It documents historic construction projects that Defossé, with the benefit of hindsight, labelled as being useless. The focus in this book is on infrastructure built in Belgium, where the almost obsessive need to balance spending between the French and Flemish-speaking portions of the country resulted in the implementation of projects that would most likely not have survived a modern day Cost Benefit Analysis. It describes minimally utilized roads, bridges that go nowhere, defunct railway tunnels, unfinished train stations and abandoned buildings.

Perhaps these “useless” projects are simply artifacts of a time when we were still learning how best to choose which projects to allocate resources to. Perhaps engineers and planners have grown more skilled at anticipating the needs of the future, avoiding investments in infrastructure that will quickly become redundant or poorly suited to meet our requirements. Or will future generations look back on some of the work we do today and label it as useless in an equally disparagingly way? However, taking a step towards the philosophical, is there really such a thing as a truly “useless” structure?

Let’s examine this question using church buildings as a short case study. Throughout much of the Western world, churches formed center points in historic urban living. These places of worship were, and in many cases still are “the most famous, the strongest, the most beautiful buildings any town has to offer”. Shifts in religious beliefs and the role that religion plays in day-to-day life have seen countless churches struggle to fill their pews, with many no longer fulfilling their original purpose as a house of worship. Have these churches reached the end of their functional life? Have they become useless? The St. Ann’s Church in Warrington, in the United Kingdom was built in 1868. Over the years, attendance dwindled: the pews grew progressively more and more empty, and today, even the pews themselves have been removed. Instead, the building has been given a second lease on life as the North West Face indoor climbing centre. The St. Jacob’s Church in Brielle, in the Netherlands was built in 1652. It presently houses a general practitioners office. The Basilica Menor de San Fransisco de Asis, standing in Havana in Cuba, has served as a church to a Franciscan monastery, a customs facility, a post office, a cold storage warehouse and now as Havana’s largest concert hall, since its initial construction in the late 1500’s. These are a few inspiring examples of a transformative process called adaptive reuse of urban infrastructure – some would say a second chance for structures in danger of becoming “useless”.

This concept of adaptive reuse first emerged in the 1970’s as a response to the question of how best to preserve historically valuable buildings and prevent their demolition. However, as sustainability has risen higher on the societal agenda over the years, these same kinds of adaptive transformations have also gained traction as a positive strategy to reduce some of the environmental impacts of urban areas. Not only does reuse and densification of core city areas counteract urban sprawl, a further environmental benefit from an adaptive approach of this kind is the reduction in construction waste that results from demolition of old structures. To give this some perspective, within the European Union for instance, waste from construction and demolition accounts for 25 to 30 percent of the total waste produced. In addition to minimizing waste, reuse of existing structural components vastly reduces the need for new construction materials, all of which have associated resource inputs, manufacturing energy requirements and associated carbon emissions.

Surprisingly, in addition to these primarily environmental advantages, some risk averse developers in US cities are embracing this strategy for economic reasons: developers in cities that are still recovering from the shock of the financial crisis in the last decade, are preferentially selecting projects that focus on repurposing existing facilities, as opposed to more cutting-edge, but riskier new construction projects. Not only are these reuse projects often completed more quickly, allowing faster income generation, they can also be more cost-effective, all of which contribute to making them more appealing investments in a still somewhat uncertain economic climate.

There are obviously a multitude of additional case-specific details that must be examined in projects of this kind, from financing to suitability of the existing structure for the incorporation of new functions; from meeting modern-day building codes to balancing historic and modern elements in the design. Nonetheless, this process of adaptive reuse will likely grow in relevance in the coming decades, as we become increasingly confronted with the question of how to transition from first-time development of so-called greenfields, to re-development of already built-up areas in an environmentally responsible way.

Perhaps this conversation started by Defossé many years ago has been focusing on the wrong facet of the problem. Maybe we should put less effort into reproving historic decisions resulting in “useless” structures, and put more emphasis on learning to adapt and innovate to ensure that every structure serves a purpose within the world and our society as we know it today. Perhaps a structure only becomes truly useless because society is not yet equipped to know how to bring it back to life. Maybe in the urban areas of the future, necessity will truly be the mother of invention.

Image Credit: Epyon01P via Wikimedia Commons


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