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Trends and Examples in Adaptive Reuse: Reshaping the Built Environment for Growth

Updated: May 23, 2023

Adaptive reuse, the process of repurposing existing buildings for new functions, is becoming increasingly popular as a tool for sustainable development and local economic growth.



A combination of historical preservation, architectural innovation, and a focus on community wellbeing defines this transformative industry. Several projects around the U.S exemplify this trend, including the Garver Feed Mill Redevelopment in Madison, Wisconsin and the Detroit Riverwalk revitalization. The Garver Feed Mill Redevelopment saw the metamorphosis of a former feed mill and sugar beet factory into a next-generation food production center. The reimagined property features event and retail spaces, outdoor patios, and gardens, which highlight local small-scale farming.


Similarly, the Detroit Riverwalk, once a neglected industrial area, now attracts approximately three million visitors annually. Over the last two decades, the SmithGroup worked diligently with various stakeholders to bring about a waterfront revitalization. The riverwalk now includes parks, plazas, and the Dequindre Cut Greenway, an urban greenway transformed from an old rail line, which provides safe and recreational connections for local neighborhoods.


Adaptive reuse projects come with their share of challenges. These include dealing with non-standard sizes, the necessity of bringing buildings up to code, and potential hazardous materials. The costs, while often comparable to or slightly less than new-build projects, can fluctuate significantly and it is crucial to have an experienced team and be prepared for unexpected costs. Despite these challenges, Deloitte's Mahajan contends that adaptive reuse projects are approximately 16% cheaper and can be completed 18% faster than new builds. This is supported by MGAC's cost estimates for various types of projects, revealing potential savings of 4.5% to 25% on adaptive reuse versus new builds.


As for innovative ideas, there is a myriad of options. These include transforming old warehouses into indoor agriculture centers, converting underperforming hotels into student housing, and repurposing vacant urban land into agricultural use or warehouse facilities. As of recently, Green MEP's focus in this domain has been in office to residential conversions.


Adaptive reuse can also serve as a solution to overbuilt office and retail spaces. With the rise of online shopping and remote work unused commercial spaces are being repurposed into mixed-use developments. The Highland Mall in Austin and The Cinderella City Mall in Englewood, Colorado, are prime examples of such transformations. It's clear that adaptive reuse will help drive the rejuvenation and development of cities in years to come, as we've already seen increased reuse in city centers. At Green MEP we believe adaptive reuse will help support the California Department of Housing's goal of at least 2.5 million homes by 2030, and we are excited to be playing our part on the path towards sustainable, affordable housing.

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