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We must surely conserve our resources wherever we can, including the urban treasures of our cities – the "hardware" of our heritage.



The Power of Adaptive Reuse

By Michael W. Mehaffy

Just now the economy is on everyone's minds. The worst recession since the Great Depression has left many of us in the building and design fields scrambling to figure out viable new business models in this changed landscape – and looking for lessons amid the wreckage. One of them is surely that we were financing construction and home mortgages with unsustainable forms of debt. That fueled a wild binge of construction, and now we're suffering a wicked hangover. A drastically tighter credit environment means we will have to be much more creative with incremental financing of smaller projects.

And we'll have to do more with existing resources and less with new projects from the ground up. That means more remodels, and more work within existing neighborhoods. It probably means finding more opportunities in adaptive reuse. And that could be one of the best things to happen in a long time.

There's everything to love about adaptive reuse – especially now. It conserves resources, and builds on existing neighborhood assets and community capacity. Citizens love its expression of local identity and heritage. Economists love its ability to catalyze wider activity, leveraging existing resources. And it's the very definition of sustainable development: able to provide durable, adaptable, successful, well-loved buildings – often in appealing, walkable, low-carbon neighborhoods.

That's not an accident. Most older historic neighborhoods evolved in a lower-carbon era, and they made the most of that constraint with efficient urban layouts that were surprisingly easy to get around. They embody often surprisingly elegant solutions to the problems of living well together in cities – and they still offer many useful resource-conserving ideas for would-be green builders today.

So beyond the treasures that physical buildings offer us – what we might call the "hardware" – adaptive reuse also offers us important "software:" useful ideas about how to live well in a sustainable, low-carbon world. They're an important storehouse of resilient, well-adapted solutions that can be combined with new resource-conserving technologies – the best of old and new.

And yet, the challenges of adaptive reuse projects are formidable, as anyone who has completed them can tell you. The "diamond in the rough" may stay in the rough for long enough to bankrupt a would-be developer.

That's why we need new tools to unlock this treasure – new forms of patient capital, and new forms of public-private partnership. We need to find ways to capture the potential savings of adaptive reuse, and monetize its advantages over unsustainable practices, so that the market will reward developers instead of penalizing them, especially in the critical early years.

There are other considerable barriers. Some preservationists believe it's wrong to make the modifications required to adapt an historic building to new uses, which might thereby "falsify history." They often cite the Venice Charter, the international conservation doctrine that guides redevelopment (and serves as the basis of the US Secretary of the Interior's preservation standards). The Charter's Article 5 states that such modifications "must not change the lay-out or decoration." That may prevent planning approval for a viable reuse, and actually make it more likely that an historic building will be torn down.

The logical fallacy in the Venice Charter – or perhaps more accurately, in its recent interpretation* – is the simplistic (and actually not very modern) belief that the past is wholly different from modernity, and "that was then, this is now." There's an especially problematic phrase in Article 9 of the Venice Charter, which states that "any extra work which is indispensable must be distinct from the architectural composition and must bear a contemporary stamp." Some architects take that as a mandate to do deliberately jarring new additions to historic structures.

But there's good reason to worry that this approach can threaten the coherence and long-term value of a neighborhood. Aside from very rare works of genius, such attempts at fashionable novelty have too often become dated eyesores, damaging the historic cores of our cities. Often they've been abandoned, and had to be torn down. By any definition, that's not a sustainable approach. In the early 20th century, radical architects like Le Corbusier believed they could discard most urban heritage, and replace it with a blueprint for a wholly new concept of the city: mechanically inspired buildings, in far-out, mechanically planned suburbs, built around the car. We now have ample evidence of the colossal mistakes made under this regime, and the horrific damage it did to our cities. As Le Corbusier himself described the vision:

"The cities will be part of the country; I shall live 30 miles from my office in one direction, under a pine tree; my secretary will live 30 miles away from it too, in the other direction, under another pine tree. We shall both have our own car. We shall use up tires, wear out road surfaces and gears, consume oil and gasoline. All of which will necessitate a great deal of work ... enough for all."

Le Corbusier could perhaps be forgiven for not understanding the ecological, social and now economic disasters that would ensue. Today we have no such excuse. We must surely conserve our resources wherever we can, including the urban treasures of our cities – the "hardware" of our heritage. But I think we also have to consider much more seriously the power of the "software" – the slow evolutionary refinements of good solutions over centuries that are still available today. It's time to use good solutions from wherever we can find them, including in our past.

Michael Mehaffy is managing director of the Sustasis Foundation in Portland, OR, and chair of the US chapter of INTBAU, the International Network of Traditional Building, Architecture and Urbanism ( He will chair a forum on adaptive reuse at the Traditional Building conference in Chicago on October 22, 2010.


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