Why Adaptive Reuse Matters: Repurposing Historic Gems

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June 29, 2019

Cities around the country continue to flourish as they reach new heights and take on new looks. Both engineering and architecture have advanced in ways unimaginable decades ago. However, as these areas evolves, it becomes critical that structures with history, character and meaning remain.

“As cities become more and more alike over time, our historic resources become these unique attributes that can’t be replicated,” said Annie Levinsky, executive director of Historic Denver. “They add things to our neighborhoods that no other buildings can.”

As the populations of cities continue to increase, it’s important that these historic resources also fulfill modern uses. These structures need to be functional and utilize space.

Adaptive reuse projects preserve what’s best about these places, but develop them in a way that is more modern and usable. This form of development generally preserves the exterior of a building and repurposes the inside. It’s a means of infusing new life into historic buildings, which can create new beacons in communities. Adaptive reuse projects are gaining traction in both Denver and Minneapolis, where population growth and a great awareness of historic preservation are driving forces.

“Adaptive reuse projects retain unique and authentic characteristics that cannot be manufactured in new construction," said Brian Hutt, director of Denver's Cushman and Wakefield office. "Successful implementation of adaptive reuse development, blends together modern technology with historic structures, creating an atmosphere and sense of place that is impossible to imitate.”

There are a number of factors that go into adaptive reuse projects, including flexibility, cost, and overall beauty.

"Adaptive reuse is a great opportunity to save and honor the heritage of a city and the history within. Repurposing a building from a different era helps to create a unique atmosphere for guests when creating a destination location."
Patricia Wall, vice president at Wall Construction

Historic preservation is imperative

There’s a reason that the demolition of older buildings in cities is often met with public outcry.

“Preserving historic buildings is important because buildings are part of our collective cultural patrimony. Just as we recognize the value of art and artists, historic buildings embody a vast array of crafts and artistic skill that is no longer utilized in modern construction.”

That’s according to Gordon Olschlager, a Minneapolis architect as well as a former member of the Minneapolis Heritage Preservation Commission and the American Institute of Architects Historic Preservation Committee. Currently, he is a board member of Preserve Minneapolis.

Historic places provide a sense of connection to both residents and visitors – old places provide a link to the past, one where those that came before us lived, breathed, and touched.

“It’s about the building, but it’s also about ourselves,” said Levinsky, adding that these connections to the past provide people a stronger sense of identity.

In saving these places by repurposing them, developers can provide a strong sense of culture in areas. The more buildings remain that have a story, the more areas can stay connected to the past while utilizing its interiors for a more modern purpose.

“Adaptive reuse projects retain unique and authentic characteristics that cannot be manufactured in new construction. Successful implementation of adaptive reuse development, blends together modern technology with historic structures, creating an atmosphere and sense of place that is impossible to imitate.”​
Brian Hutt, director of Denver's Cushman and Wakefield office.

A project in Denver is doing just that – a manufacturing plant from 1910 will soon become a mixed-use community of retail, office and hotel space. Called Denver Rock Drill, the site was once the Denver Rock Drill Manufacturing Company. It created drills that were used all around the world, including Colorado. At its peak, the plant occupied more than a city block and including living quarters for hundreds of its employees.

“Everyone who visits the site is in awe of the unique features including, but certainly not limited to the rail spurs, the saw tooth glass roof, and the water tower,” said Hutt, who is leasing the office portion of this adaptive reuse project. “Every time I walk the site my attention is drawn to a feature I haven’t noticed before. The level of craftsmanship used to construct the buildings are impossible to duplicate in today’s world.”

By adapting over 150,000 square feet of the historic site, Denver Rock Drill will both hold an important key to Denver’s industrious past, as well as provide a new space for office users, visitors and residents.

In Minneapolis, a former machinery building from the 1800s will soon become an urban food hall and market. Called Malcom Yards Market, Patricia Wall of Wall Construction said that the brick and timber shell mixed with new kitchens and colorful craftspeople in the marketplace will provide a warm ambience.

Located in the Prospect Park neighborhood, Wall said residents were pleased that they decided to keep and reuse the machinery building. Repurposing the old machinery building while adding new, unique features was essential in creating a unique atmosphere that is meaningful, beautiful, and provides a distinct connection to the past.

“Adaptive reuse is a great oapportunity to save and honor the heritage of a city and the history within,” Wall said. “Repurposing a building from a different era helps to create a unique atmosphere for guests when creating a destination location. The reuse projects really stand out as unique and meaningful.”


“Bringing a dilapidated building back to life allows us to reuse the historic shell rather than buy and construct everything from scratch,” said Clark Atkinson, principal and chief development officer at Zocalo Community Development.

By repurposing existing buildings, developers create less waste and reduce the number of shipments that produce carbon from delivery, he added.

“The list of sustainable attributes is countless,” he said.

It makes sense to reuse buildings, rather than tearing them down and building new ones up.

It takes about 65 years for an energy-efficient new building to save the amount of energy lost in demolishing an existing building, according to the United States Environmental Protection Agency. Repurposing old buildings also reduces the need for the construction of new buildings, a process that requires land, energy and materials.

“The ‘greenest’ buildings are the ones that already exist,” said Olschlager. By recycling these buildings, developers are preventing the landfills to be filled with construction materials. In most cases, it also means that less materials go into the actual construction of the project itself.

The greatest benefit of adaptive reuse and saving historic buildings means we are recycling them and not filling up our landfills with construction materials, he said.

According to Boston University, the costs of producing and purchasing new building materials, in regards to finances and energy, is more damaging to the environment “than incorporating adaptive reuse strategies of existing buildings.”

Challenges of adaptive reuse

Like any project, adaptive reuse development comes with its own set of difficulties.

Construction involving historic buildings tend to present more surprises that turn into challenges, said Atkinson.

In new construction, the materials used are new and mostly predictable. However, with a preexisting, older structure, there’s often a layer of complexity involved, which calls for great analysis and care, he said.

Zocalo currently has a project, The Quayle, which was a hotel in Denver dating back to the early 1900s. It is being transformed into affordable housing with ground floor retail.

The best buildings were built with characteristics that enable their adaptive re-use and re-purpose, like natural light and tall ceilings. And as humans, we like to belong to something greater than ourselves; knowing that we can identify with and find useful purpose in things that were useful in a different time and way, enables anthropomorphic connection with our heritage and history.
Clark Atkinson, principal and chief development officer at Zocalo Community Development.

Though older construction is quite beautiful, there are often materials that are harmful to humans, which require careful handling, Atkinson pointed out. For example, asbestos and lead based paint.

“These materials were used in lots of building materials from the past and need special attention to protect workers and occupants, he said. “Sometimes, buildings have deferred maintenance or have had changes in the past which fundamentally change the characteristics of the building.”

Creative solutions and innovative approaches to repurposing and meeting code, are crucial in successfully transforming these structures.

In other cases, the greatest obstacle to transforming an older building can be in the earliest stages of development itself; selecting what it will actually become.

“I think the biggest challenge is finding a compatible new use, so that important historic character is preserved,” Olschlager said. For example, he said warehouse adaption is usually easy as there is not a lot of significant interior spaces. But, changing a church into housing would not be a compatible use since much of the interior would have to be significantly altered, he said.

It’s no surprise that as these challenges culminate, so does the cost of the project. In some cases, developers can use tax credits to mitigate the mounting cost of adaptive reuse, both on the federal and state level.

No matter the challenge, preserving a gem from the days of yesteryear is worth the outcome.

“Adaptive reuse was the only way for this historic beauty,” Atkinson said of The Quayle. This structure, along with a few other buildings in this area of Denver, represent an important historical identity for a piece of the commercial heart of these neighborhoods.

“It is virtually impossible to replicate the character of historic buildings,” Atkinson said.

Transforming Cities

While adaptive reuse projects may pose unforeseen challenges, they tend to be outweighed by the irreplaceable beauty, craftsmanship and connection to our past they provide.

“Having a building sit empty does nothing for the neighborhood but redeveloping the building and giving life to a historic landmark brings a community hub back to life, ready to retell stories of the past while also creating new stories,” Atkinson said.

Reusing an old building keeps the "heart and soul" alive in a project, Wall said. The aesthetics are vibrant with architectural details from yesteryear.

In this episode of Authentic Form and Function's Transforming Cities podcast, Megan Torza, Architect and Partner at DTAH Toronto, speaks to developing the area around Toronto's ravines. Historically, the ravines have been one of the locations for industry in Toronto, due to access to water for hydroelectric power, and access to the rail system. Industrials sites have been there for more than a century. However, as the city densifies, it becomes important to make these areas more amenable to public access, she said.

Learn more about developing Toronto, and Torza's views on adaptive reuse here.

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