Adaptive Reuse Re-Imagines Obsolete Buildings

Adaptive reuse of a vacant building is a smart community choice for sustainable development. If you aren't acquainted with this phrase, it describes finding a new purpose for a building rather its original use--or the one everyone remembers. A new land use that has more market demand is chosen and developed.

Building reuse is a simple idea for community improvement, but one that has huge potential to reduce the carbon footprint and solid waste inherent in building demolition and new construction.

If people need to be convinced, we can refer you to an online calculator for the energy cost of tearing down buildings, as compared to what is known as embedded energy found in existing buildings. See this embedded energy calculator.



That doesn't mean you won't have to sell the idea that what everyone remembers as a service station could become a restaurant. Change threatens all but the best in us.

For a general and simple discussion of the topic, see our page on recycling buildings, with the gorgeous photo of a gas station turned bar-restaurant.

But on this page, let's be more detailed and have fun learning by example what your problem vacant building can become. Here are some specific adaptive reuse suggestions grouped by categories.


List of Possible New Uses for Vacant Buildings

Old schools can become:

  • Apartments,
  • Condominiums,
  • Private schools,
  • Office buildings,
  • Social service buildings (sometimes with gym remaining),
    Community centers,
  • Private residences if they are one-room rural schools,
  • University classrooms, or
  • Cultural centers.

Old factories are prime for:

  • Apartments or condominiums,
  • Office buildings,
  • Restaurants,
  • Economic development incubator,
  • Employment and training complexes,
  • University classrooms,
  • Shopping centers, or maybe
  • Gyms, basketball or handball courts.

Replaced power plants have reopened as:

  • Art museums or
  • Libraries

Old gasoline stations, with gas tanks removed as required by law, could become:

  • Oil change stores,
  • Restaurants,
  • Convenience stores,
  • Auto repair garages,
  • Garden centers, or
  • Private residences, in rural areas especially.

Adaptive reuse of old mills might yield:

  • Lofts,
  • Shopping centers,
  • Small shops,
  • Restaurants, or
  • Vocational education classrooms

Old motels may resurface as:

  • Apartments,
  • Day care centers,
  • Storage units,
  • Garden centers, or
  • Flea markets.

"Dead malls" or defunct shopping centers have possibilities as:

  • Cultural centers,
  • Apartments and condominiums,
  • Antique malls,
  • Telemarketing centers,
  • Offices,
  • Churches,
  • Community colleges,
  • Nursing homes, or
  • Parks, sometimes with conservation areas or trails incorporated.

See also ideas in a book we recommend, Retrofitting Suburbia.
More discussion can be found in the pages on shopping center renovation and shopping center redevelopment.

Adaptive reuse of old churches can produce:

  • Theatres,
  • Private residences,
  • Museums,
  • Art galleries,
  • Community centers,
  • Antique shops,
  • Nonprofit organization headquarters, or
  • Musical performance spaces, if no new congregation can be located.

Old downtown stores make great new:

  • Townhouses,
  • Offices,
  • Live-work units,
  • Day care for children or adults,
  • New church start-ups, or
  • Economic development incubators or business accelerators.

Old train stations or depots often open again as:

  • Shopping centers,
  • Community centers,
  • Model railroading clubhouses,
  • Museums,
  • Trailheads,
  • Shops,
  • Antique stores, or
  • Transit stations.

Former libraries regain their composure as:

  • Offices,
  • Art galleries,
  • Apartments,
  • Private residences in small towns, or
  • Community centers.

Old post offices may be re-purposed as:

  • Offices,
  • Museums,
  • Libraries,
  • Stores,
  • Veterinary clinics, or
  • Homes in small towns.

Old grocery stores commonly become:

  • Flea markets,
  • Offices,
  • Clinics,
  • Ski or surf shops,
  • Restaurants,
  • Microbreweries, or
  • Libraries.

Old banks would be great as:

  • Transit stations,
  • Libraries,
  • Museums,
  • Offices,
  • Restaurants, or
  • Antique stores.

Old mansions can be reused as:

  • Museums,
  • Art galleries,
  • Office buildings,
  • Condominiums,
  • Restaurants,
  • Antique stores,
  • Rehab centers,
  • Party facilities for rent,
  • City halls, or
  • Non-profit organization headquarters.

Old airports and military bases are splendid:

  • Redevelopments as complete communities,
  • College campuses,
  • Golf courses,
  • Parks,
  • Local or state government buildings, or
  • Prisons.

Old colleges can graduate into:

  • Schools,
  • Museum and park complexes,
  • Redevelopment as complete communities,
  • Industrial campuses,
  • Large nonprofit organization homes, or
  • Prisons.

Old barns and agricultural buildings have been reopened as:

  • Private residences,
  • Condominiums,
  • Lofts,
  • Vacation compounds for extended family,
  • Cheese factories,
  • Offices,
  • Rental space for high-end hobbies (fancy cars and such), or
  • City hall. (Just seeing if you're paying attention, but look at visitor-submitted information on one instance of an agricultural complex conversion to office use.)

Former prisons have been re-purposed as:

  • Apartments
  • Condominiums
  • College campuses
  • Parks or golf courses
  • Mixed-use developments
  • Hotels
  • Arts facilities, ranging from performance venues to artist live-work spaces

Under an adaptive reuse initiative, cotton gins, tobacco barns, pole barns may become:

  • Park pavilions, or
  • With walls added or repaired, offices, artists lofts, manufacturing, flea markets.

Vacant parcels and underused parks may be revitalized if you position them as:


Related Topics:
gas station became a restaurant
Recycling Buildings

business incubator
Economic Development Incubator

technology transfer scientific discoveries
Higher Education and Economic Development



How to Organize for an Adaptive Reuse Project

Our advice is to combine sound market research, if you have the capability or funding to hire a consultant, with the services of a good architect.

If you are on a shoestring budget or no budget, simply convene the most creative people you know, maybe get a bottle of wine, and start talking and doodling with felt-tip markers till you have an idea or three. Then ask a developer, builder, or real estate agent what they think. Keep asking, keep doodling, and keep advertising until an adaptive reuse prospect appears.

If you're on a limited or no budget, the Internet is your friend. Set up a Facebook page for your property, or just get on forums and blogs to spread the word. Be sure that you use a keyword that someone searching for your property would be thinking about.

Often the idea doesn't really take shape until a particular prospect sees the property. But that will be an accident; most buyers don't know they're looking for an old upholstery shop.

If you're in the public sector, obtain control of the building by purchasing an option to buy. Think through any financial incentives you are able to offer, such as tax increment financing.

Gimmicks such as attracting the media or putting a property you own up for auction online sometimes actually bear fruit, but don't pin your hopes on one strategy. Be persistent.

If you are able to make a deal to re-use an older building for a new purpose, your community could receive the benefit of a unique project, and one minimizing the waste of good building materials. Frequently old buildings have good bones and are made from more substantial materials than those currently used in construction. The selling points are many.


> > Adaptive Re-Use


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