Last Updated: March 26, 2023
Adaptive reuse of a vacant building is a smart community choice for sustainable community development. If you aren't acquainted with this phrase, it describes finding a new purpose for a building rather than its original use, or at least the one everyone remembers. A new land use that has more market demand is chosen and developed.
Re-purposing of buildings is a simple idea for community improvement, but often more difficult to implement because of the construction challenges that old buildings present. However, preservation of the history and often the architectural charm of the old building makes these projects exciting and valuable. In addition, reuse of buildings reduces 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 does not mean that it will be easy 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. The difference is that the recycling idea does not necessarily mean a change of use.
But on this page, let's be more detailed and have fun learning by example what your problem vacant building can become.
The specific adaptive reuse suggestions are grouped according to the previous land use. We hope our extended list-making can inspire some creative ideas on your part as your community imagines what to do with that building that no longer seems viable in its former use.
Old schools can become:
Old factories are prime for:
Replaced power plants have reopened as:
Old gasoline stations, with gas tanks removed as required by law, could become:
Adaptive reuse of old mills might yield:
Old motels may resurface as:
Small former nursing homes (long-term care facilities) may become:
"Dead malls" or defunct shopping centers have possibilities as:
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:
Old downtown stores make great new:
Office buildings in downtowns or campuses where demand has weakened due to pandemic-era "work at home" trends could become:
Old train stations or depots often open again as:
Former libraries regain their composure as:
Old post offices may be re-purposed as:
Old grocery stores commonly become:
Old banks would be great as:
One-time mansions can be reused as:
Unused airports and military bases are splendid:
Old colleges can graduate into:
Abandoned barns and agricultural buildings have been reopened as:
Former prisons have been re-purposed as:
Under an adaptive reuse initiative, cotton gins, tobacco barns, or pole barns may become:
An unused warehouse may evolve into:
Vacant parcels and underused parks may be revitalized if you position them as:
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, spread sketches and photos on Instagram, 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.
For further inspiration, see a story our site visitor submitted about an innovative new city hall complex that re-used agricultural buildings.
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