Why Adaptive Reuse?

June 20, 2024


Adaptive reuse is a design process that reimagines existing buildings, repurposing them from their original intent. These transformative projects push beyond traditional renovations to meet current and future environmental, economic, cultural, and community needs while preserving the buildings’ history and character.


While the benefits of adaptive reuse are many, they can be broken into three overarching and interconnected categories: environmental, economic, and cultural. An effective decarbonization strategy, this design process can be applied to a diverse range of markets and building typologies.

3202 Queens Boulevard brings new life to the former Packard Motor Building.

Environmental Benefits

Adaptive reuse is one of the best means of lowering the AEC industry’s outsized carbon footprint, which accounts for approximately 42 percent of global emissions per year. Conversations around decarbonization often focus on reducing operational carbon, or the carbon emissions produced by energy usage such as heating, cooling, and lighting. While reducing operational carbon emissions by investing in renewable energy sources, implementing passive design strategies, and utilizing smart building technology to get to net-zero are effective strategies, our industry must tackle carbon emissions at every stage of a building’s lifecycle—including before it’s ever occupied.

Carbon emissions can be broken into two main categories: operational and embodied carbon; these two categories account for the total lifetime carbon output of buildings from design to demolition.

Embodied carbon, or the emissions produced in the production, transportation, construction, and demolition of building materials, accounts for upwards of 11 percent of total global emissions, according to the EPA.

Adaptive reuse projects reduce embodied carbon output by reusing buildings instead of requiring the production and transportation of new materials and construction of an all-new structure. This strategy also minimizes waste and environmental pollutants resulting from demolition, which account for upwards of 90 percent of debris created during construction according to the EPA.

The adaptive reuse of 3202 Queens Boulevard brings new life to the former Packard Motor Building. KSS Architect’s thoughtful design calls for keeping the nearly century-old cast-in-place concrete structure and adds a strategically located addition that increases the building’s insulation and reduces its long-term operational carbon output. When complete, the building will be home to several businesses and activate the neighborhood.

Adaptive reuse generally improves the structure’s operational carbon footprint by upgrading heating, cooling, lighting, windows, and other structures that require fossil fuel-based energy usage to run. Preserving and reworking these existing structures also serves to maintain a more compact urban environment, which can reduce sprawl, promote public transportation, and encourage walking.

Big Picture Philadelphia– El Centro High School’s new home is a former factory in Philadelphia, PA.

Economic Benefits

For projects on a budget, adaptive reuse can be a more effective approach than new construction. Broadly, it is more cost-effective to repurpose and reuse a structure compared to demolishing an existing structure and starting from scratch.

Money is saved on transporting materials since fewer materials would be required. Older buildings, especially factories and the like, may have stronger, more durable foundations. Plus, navigating the planning and zoning process may be easier since the structure already exists. However, there may be more of an “upfront cost” due to labor and updating systems to modern codes.

Big Picture Philadelphia– El Centro High School’s new home is a former factory. KSS preserved the building’s shell and structure, designed energy-efficient systems, and carefully considered daylight, bringing substantial savings to our client and marking a sustainable investment in the school and surrounding communities. By adapting this abandoned space, Big Picture Philadelphia is also taking steps to help revitalize a neighborhood ravaged by deindustrialization and disinvestment by injecting new life into the community and supporting the next generation of leaders. Revitalized historic buildings can attract tourists, and investments, and boost the local economy.

Express Newark located in the former Hahne & Co. building in Newark, NJ.

Cultural Benefits

Deindustrialization has left a number of large buildings empty over the years, directly impacting many neighborhoods. An adaptive approach can take these large, often urban structures and create space to serve the community’s current needs while preserving the heritage of individual neighborhoods. While the flour mills, paint factories, and furniture warehouses of yesteryear may not return as a result of the global economy, new modalities can fit into those spaces.

The iconic Hahne & Co. building in Newark, NJ is a prime example. This four-story, art deco building was a monument to the city’s golden age but in recent times served as a sobering reminder of the deindustrialization of Newark. With the Rutgers campus nearby, the University sought to engage more closely with the people and communities that make the city a vibrant place to live, work, and play. Their initiative took off, attracting other anchor institutions to create Express Newark.

Acting as a strategic anchor within the overall redevelopment, Express Newark is an arts-focused community educational program. Conceptualized as a “third space” by Newark artists and arts organizations alongside Rutgers faculty, staff, and students, and the design team from KSS, it provides access to and engagement with the arts.

By bringing these structures into the modern era, the previously neglected building can revitalize the area surrounding it, leading to stronger connections between residents and where they live and work. Outreach can also provide valuable insights when repurposing a historic building. By getting the local residents’ input and incorporating that feedback into the design process gives the eventual end user a sense of ownership and pride of place.

Adaptive reuse is a sustainable and socially responsible approach to architecture that benefits this and future generations. By taking steps to adapt and repurpose existing structures, KSS is rebuilding community for a more sustainable tomorrow.