Category Archives: Final 1500w

The Future & Past of New York City Development

Periodical: Harvard Design Magazine

Construction focuses on two site scenarios; an open site with minimal clearing before beginning construction and a site that  has an existing building that must first be demolished. Aside from often being cheaper, the former option is also the easier option. This mentality has prompted increasingly unprecedented levels of construction every year, even in those of a slowly growing economy following the recession. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Developments estimates over 1,103,000 residential construction permits will be issued in the 2015 calendar year, a 5% increase from last year (US Dept. of Housing and Urban Development). This rate is implying an unsustainable trend; discarding older buildings in favor of their newer counterparts. This is where a third option prevails: an existing building subject to adaptive reuse. The modification and ultimate reuse of existing buildings in an urban context is pivotal for sustainable growth of New York City in both the immediate and long term planning conversations.

Between the 1930s and 1960s, Robert Moses was responsible for creating much of the gridwork that still defines New York as a city today. In addition, he was responsible for the creation of countless projects, with a total cost of over $184 billion in today’s dollars, all of which were new construction (Goldberger). During this timeframe, Moses was not alone on widespread construction with many developers undertaking ever-larger projects and constructing sprawling projects as a result. This massive influx of buildings is now ageing and is currently in one of two states. The first state is that these roughly fifty-year-old buildings simply no longer exist. This is most common of properties that had fallen into disrepair or were no longer large enough to meet the demands they we facing and were ultimately replaced by a building that was able to meet those needs. The second state is that the building is still standing, often in its original condition or with minimal updates over the years and possibly uninhabited; both of these represent a misusage of resources. Buildings and construction represent the largest portion of the U.S. produced carbon dioxide emissions—greater than that of industrial and transportation emission, combined (Architecture 2030). Much of this pollution, as well as waste material not counted in the previous statistic, stems from new construction and demolition of buildings.

The basis for choosing adaptive reuse as opposed to new construction traditionally falls under environmental factors or historic preservation. Simply not constructing an entirely new building can push the break-even point of a net positive building ahead by decades. The average LEED certified building takes twenty to thirty years to offset the initial carbon footprint from it simply being constructed. By simply reusing a building that is already extant, the industry can drastically reduce massive energy waste. While there is always some construction to be undergone in any Adaptive reuse project, it will be smaller than beginning a new project from a ‘tabula rasa’ site. The inherent characteristics of the existing building can also bear significance to the community and neighborhood as a whole as well as retain certain features after being adapted to gesture towards its former life. Utilizing a new program to preserve a significant building enables the building to be ensured to be cared for and as a space for it’s end users (Schropfer). New York has need for adaptive reuse for both of these reasons. In a city with an ever-expanding population there is constant need for construction, something that often looks to the sky for solutions. Looking back to the ground and evaluating what existing resources are not being used, or being underutilized in the form of existing structures can massively cut away from the carbon emissions associated with constructing a skyscraper. In addition to avoiding the carbon cost, this can also save historic buildings of New York’s nearly four hundred year old history by brining them back to the forefront of the city with a new life.

Courtyard of Westbeth
Courtyard of Westbeth by Richard Meier

There have been many successful examples of adaptive reuse within the heart of New York City, three programmatically different examples include; Westbeth, Chelsea Market, and the High Line. Each represents a different level of conversion, scale, and the difference in their start and end program. Westbeth is a housing complex geared towards artists. It has been so successful in its second life that the waitlist for an apartment is twelve years and the list has not taken any new applicants since 2007. The structure originally functioned as the headquarters of Bell Telephone laboratories for nearly seventy-five years until 1966. At this point of vacancy, Richard Meier was handed the task of converting this large office building into a communal housing and community gathering space. With minimal alterations Meier was able to create a space that shed the negative components of a bygone era, yet retain the history of the building and complete the project at a minute carbon cost in comparison to a similar new building. This represents one typology of adaptive reuse; private space converted into another private space. This is the most common form of repurposing spaces and is potentially the easiest as there is often not irreconcilable differences between programmatic and formal structures of the building and its new and old usages.

Within Brooklyn exists a similar condition that still remains in disrepair. The Brooklyn Army Terminal is an enormous sprawling building that stretches over five blocks of waterfront property. With heavily glazed exterior walls and regular and grandly sized interior courtyards, it would fit a variety of programmatic scenarios. Due to the massive influx of people into Brooklyn over the past few decades as well as the skyrocketing price of housing, private residences may be a suitable fit for the property. The existing features are already conducive to a program of this type and would allow for surrounding areas to be turned into a park, potentially in conjunction with the Brooklyn Bridge Park. By converting the government-owned building into private residences, there can be minimal modifications, potentially function as a source of income and revitalization for the community, and ease the need for housing in Brooklyn.

Brooklyn Army Terminal
Brooklyn Army Terminal

Another excellent example of successful adaptive reuse is the Chelsea Market in Manhattan. This is a large food-centric multi-usage space that centers around a former factory complex for the National Biscuit Company (Nabisco). Both programmatically and formally, the building has not changed greatly over its hundred-year history. Consistently producing and serving food, the building was adapted for reuse with minimal changes as evinced by openings simply knocked out of existing brick walls and largely preserved building skin. This not only keeps many of the elements associated with the initial food production areas, but also resulted in a building that was simply modernized to meet current standards instead of constructed from the ground up. In the years following the factory’s reconstruction, there have only been minor changes to meet specifications of tenants. This example features a transition of the building from one privately owned space into a mixed private and public usage space. This method of transition is one of the more difficult options, yet potentially the most rewarding. Returning a building that is intended to be private, often specifically geared towards a singular function, into public usage is difficult and often requires a higher degree of intervention. For some cases this may mean expanding spaces from an individual and personal scale, to a much larger group or community scale.

This concept of transitioning a private space into one with a mixed set of private and public functions is one that could be applied to the New York Dock Company warehouses in Red Hook Brooklyn. These two large buildings have been standing for nearly one hundred years, but have been vacant for the past thirty. Recently one building was purchased by Christies Auction House and is now used to store priceless works of art produced by Van Gogh, Pollack, and Brancusi to name a few. This development not only shows that the remaining property is prime for reuse, but also the ease with which the project was completed implies the potential for still vacant building to easily transition into its new life. This building could function as a mixed commercial, public, and office space building to serve the nearby areas of dense population.

A final, and very well known example of adaptive reuse is the Highline in Manhattan by Diller, Scofidio, and Renfro. This repurposing of an existing elevated train track into a park is one of the most well-known and public focused examples of adaptive reuse. This was a high profile project that was constructed over a period of years with a large amount of funding from public and private groups. The park now serves as one of the largest tourist attractions in New York City and has added miles of greenery as a means of promoting a healthy city and giving back more space to the public while not edging out any existing residents. The Highline exemplifies the high level of success adaptive reuse can achieve through transforming a private space into a public area. These projects are best suited in scenarios where public spaces are being underutilized and not cared for, yet are in a desirable area.

The Highline by Diller, Scofidio, and Renfro
The Highline by Diller, Scofidio, and Renfro

One instance of this transition of space from private to public is the proposed Brooklyn Field House associated with the development of the Brooklyn Bridge Park. This would take an existing warehouse bordering the park and convert it into a velodrome for both public use and competitions as a source of community unity and economic development. This would also programmatically enrich the parks offerings. The project was offered to be completely funded by an entrepreneur with and interest in cycling but was ultimately turned down by nearby residents against the project. The building is currently unused and surrounded by a major public transit corridor and the Brooklyn Bridge Park. Much as the high line connects the Chelsea Market and Westbeth, the Brooklyn Bridge Park connects all three of the proposed sites mentioned. This connection between public spaces and adaptive reuse spurring other instances of adaptive reuse gestures towards an overarching trend of more pedestrian cities and a new mentality towards urbanism.

While new construction may still be the first and only avenue many developers pursue, this too is not a flawless system. Jane Jacobs contends, “We expect too much of new buildings, and too little of ourselves.”, This statement is undoubtedly relevant to the question of urban re-use. Reinvesting time, planning, and resources into the second life of a building is pivotal to urban sustainability and redevelopment. New buildings have the same set of problems that an existing building may face, and also lack the innate historical integration into the site and have a lower potential for diminished environmental impact. Rather than a universal call to action, this should serve as a reminder. Carl Elefante said it most succinctly, “the greenest building is the one already built,”—no matter where it may be. There are situations where utilizing an existing building is not beneficial to the project as a whole, but far more times where adaptive reuse is simply an overlooked option in the planning phase. As New York grows to new heights in the coming years and decades, adaptive reuse my continually be considered as an option for environmentally responsible and culturally preserving development.


Works Cited

Goldberger, Paul. “Robert Moses, Master Builder, Is Dead at 92.” Editorial. The New York Times 30 July 1981: n. pag. The Learning Network. The New York Times, 2010. Web. <>.

Jacobs, Jane. The Death and Life of Great American Cities. New York: Random House,Print.

Schropfer, Thomas. Ecological Urban Architecture: Qualitative Approaches to Sustainability. Basel: Birkhauser, 2012. Print.

“The Environmental Value of Building Reuse.” The National Trust for Historic Preservation, 24 Jan. 2012. Web. <>.

U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. New Residential Construction in September 2015. Washington: n.p., 2015. US Census Bureau News. US Department of Commerce, 20 Oct. 2015. Web. <>.

U.S. Energy Information Administration, Annual Energy Outlook 2012 Release, Table 18 Carbon Dioxide Emissions by Sector and Source;

Mixed-Income Housing Segregation

Periodical: Design Observer

Thesis: While mixed-income housing is a solution for  low-income housing problems originating in our cities, developers should offer an ethical solution for its users.


The public housing system has developed many problems dating back to Franklin D. Roosevelt. In 1933, he declared, “One-third of the nation is ill-housed”. He addressed the importance of housing and the failure to adequately house the American population. The Pruitt-Igoe housing project by Minoru Yamasaki was built to become the perfect example of urban planning and modernism, but in 1972

Photo by U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Office of Policy Development and Research
Photo by U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Office of Policy Development and Research

was demolished and became a symbol of failure of government intervention into housing problems. At one point affordable housing held hope and promise for cities’ poor communities, but now it has become centers for crime, violence, and gang activity. Therefore the upper-class community usually rejects affordable housing projects.  However, there is a better way to give affordable housing to our cities without concentrating crime and poverty, and promoting overcrowding and the development of ghettos. Continue reading Mixed-Income Housing Segregation


Periodical: Japan Architecture+ Urbanism

Thesis: With the limited land space in Japan and cities, reaching their capacities, Japanese architecture should focus on innovating designs that can create an environment that would allow the people to benefit from its agricultural and urban function.

After being isolated from the world during the Tokugawa Shogunate in 1868, Japan’s isolation ended. Since then, Japanese architecture and culture was paused in time. The opening of the country forced Japan into a westernization movement. This movement made architecture one of the focuses on Japan. At this point in time, Japan’s sole purpose was to focus on creating newer cities where people could manifest a western lifestyle. Even though the architecture was made to increase the aesthetic of Japan, the new cities were built on land where population was greater in numbers than any other location in the country. Since the end of the of the westernization movement in the early 1900’s, Japanese cities have grown exponentially. Many cities like Tokyo, Yokohama, and Osaka have developed such that much of the land has been converted into urbanized areas that rely on innovative architecture. With over 127 million people living in the country, people have exhausted the land usage and have no choice but to rely on high-rise buildings. Many modern Japanese architects and landscape architects focus their careers on trying to create sustainable cities, but are still limited by the maximum space they can work with. As limited land space in Japan, reaching their capacities, Japanese architecture should focus on innovating designs that can create an environment that would allow the people to benefit from its agricultural and urban function.

Land in Japan is based on mountainous and volcanic structure, which leaves no alternative for people to build in an environment where easy access is possible. Some of the land has been developed to increase the accommodation of agriculture that allows people to harvest food and crops to provide to the cities. Japan’s agriculture fields extend farther due to the fertile possibility of the land. As a result, the focus on agriculture is prioritize compared to the significance of construction. About 20% of the land is suitable for agriculture and 68% belongs to forestry (Barnes). Many of the mountainsides and the plains are used for farming and terraces for cultivating farmland. The division between agriculture and urban is enforced by government officials to prevent contamination and pollution of the crop fields by cities. This restriction limits what is built and forces the majority of the population in one area.

While the land is developed as farmland, and forestry is protected, the increase of population continues to eradicate many areas around the land. Some lands are razed to accommodate the population and increase the housing for the people. The population in land accounts for 12% in all of Japan. Many cities have become overpopulated, leading to people to live in high-rise complexes. Minimal spacious rooms are designed to accommodate single families that reside in many urban cities. Families in Japan containing three or four members dwell in rooms where the size is compared to those of a single living space in the United States. With many people living in urban areas, the cities tend to depend on the transportation of food and the export of material. As a result, the environment is inflicted with issues caused by the urban living. The infliction towards the surrounding affects how much of the environment can be changed.

As innovative development in cities cease, buildings are stacked or miniaturized to accommodate as much people as possible. High-rise structures in many cities tend to house major commercial spaces, restricting where people can live. Commercial spaces tend to be prioritized over residential. This diminishes the possible locations of residences. High-rise buildings should be designed to allow people to interact and use their surrounding environment. Architecture should involve the agriculture usage as a means of vitalizing the lifestyle of the people. Buildings should adequately place above ground to allow for natural ventilation and sun to reach the crops being grown below. Ideally, the building should be lifted off the ground and placed on columns where the structural support is being helped by the other building. This creates a continuous connection between buildings. In 1966, renowned Japanese architect Kenzo Tange proposed a concept that would allow the Japanese people to live in high-rise buildings by extending the buildings from a core system that would allow future development of the site (figure A).


Figure A
Figure A

This project was developed to renew the Tsukiji District in Japan that would optimize the usage of houses. By using the concept of the Tsukiji Project, architecture and agriculture can be combined into one system. By using the core system, one can free the landscape to allow the accommodation of crop fields and agricultural usage. As the architecture and structure are raised from the ground, the building does not conflict with surrounding nature, thus allowing the environment to flourish and produce clean, organic and natural atmosphere. The structure allows the people to live in areas where the ground is uneven and construction is not allowed. As a result, the land tends to be cleaner and healthier for people to live in. The use of roads is minimized and the surrounding begins to intertwine as a whole community.

Another Japanese architecture proposed a parallel project that allows individual dwellings to hang from a single megastructure. Kiyonori Kikutake designed the Marine City that utilizes a core system (figure B). While the Marine City resembles the Tsukiji Project, Kikukate’s proposal dedicates two zones of the main core to two housing system. Each system is composed of eight compacted above ground, relieving the landscape of major construction. The use of individual house allows the dwellers to live in their own property while still sharing the main structure. The individualization of the each unit creates a personal space for each family in which allows the member to occupy their own spaces.


Figure B
Figure B

A modern concept can be seen in Singapore. The Interlace designed by Ore Scheeren and OMA allows the connection between dwellers and the landscape (Figure c).This complex takes advantage of every single square footage by stacking the individual units on top of each other, creating a sense of spatial interaction (Arch Daily). The dwelling units double the capability of residence without interfering with the surrounding environment. Due to the small confliction between the building and the surroundings, the complex actualizes the potential increase of the land by amplifying the greenery on the surfaces of the units (Figure D). By following the same example illustrated by Scheeren, cities should be able to accommodate large families with their space needs in their homes. As the architectural dwelling increases, cities are able to expand spaces, yet, relieving the stress in nature. By increasing the land to better the people, architecture inflicts less damage to the surrounding after construction. The landscape creates special areas where people can utilize the land to raise crops.

Figure C
Figure C
Figure D
Figure D

Due to many oppositions in construction and budget, projects like this are likely to be built because of the major impact it has towards the city before construction. Before a city can manifest in redevelopment, cities locations must be razed to accommodate the new development. At times, this causes the city to backlash in the development. The movement of current dwellers in an old residence affects how the city function and many residences are not able to afford the changes in lifestyle. In some cases, the project itself becomes unsatisfactory within the city limits. Some cities become unaware that housing becomes part of local taxation and thus conflicts with living expenses, thus the area becomes gentrified. This diminish the possibility of how many dwellings can actually be built. The structural possibility is at a disadvantage as the size of the core system would be dramatically impossible. The size of the core system would be so large that it would take more than the given land. On the other hand, the raising of crops benefits the dwellers; it lowers the profits of some other consumers. In some areas the growth of crops and food are a source of finance, as such, the cities depend on the commercial use. With the relocation of agriculture fields into personal use, agriculture field can become unusable and neglected.

By using architectural design, it is possible to merge agricultural and urban land. Many architects like Kenzo Tange, Ore Scheeren have innovated the way people and nature interact with one another. Their work manifests the ideals of this unison. While the prevention of pollution is controllable, many Japanese cities have become urbanized to a point that have created many of the major environmental issues seen in Japan. Incorporating hybrid buildings where people are able to grow their own crops would increase the sustainability of the cities in Japan. This increases the availability of land, people uses in their daily life. By relying in cities where sustainability is part of a mechanical system, cities become unsuitable by nature. Thus, by allowing nature to be part of the daily life of the people and its surrounding, cities flourish in better habitats, cleaner cities, and suitable lifestyles. The increase of ruralization in cities helps the rate of ecological and expansion of land for people. This creates better self-sustain cities that would flourish for centuries.


Works Cited

Barnes, Gina L. Origins of the Japanese Islands: The New “Big Picture”. Durham, England, n.d.

Japan, Web. Environmental Issues, Japan. n.d. 25 10 2015.

Johnston, Bruce F. Agricultural Development and Economic Transformation: A Comparative Study of the Japanese Experience. n.d.

Sawada, Shujiro. Agriculture and Economic Growth: Japan’s Experience. Princeton University Press, 1969.

Schalk, Meike. The Architecture of Metabolism. MDPI, Basel, 2014.

Yoshiyasu, Ida, et al. Geography Education in Japan. Springer, 2015.

“The Interlace / OMA” 06 May 2015. ArchDaily. Accessed 13 Dec 2015. <>

Adaptive Reuse is Better than New Construction

Adaptive Reuse is Better than New Construction.

With so many unused, abandoned, and historically significant buildings, why do we insist on demolishing them to build new ones? Today, there is an abundance of buildings including factories, houses, incomplete construction sites, stores, and ghost towns available to be re-adapted. Adaptive reuse is better than new construction because it is better for the environment, is an answer for poor living conditions, preserves the cultural energy of the place, and is an interesting design challenge for architects.


Environmental Benefits

Today, it is cheaper to demolish a building and create an entirely new project than it is to reuse a building that already exists. It may be monetarily less expensive, but at what cost to our living environment?

Demolition contributes heavily to industrial waste. Currently, waste generated from the construction and demolition industry is about 1.25 million tonnes per year (1 tonne is approximately 2,204.6 pounds) (Bergsdal 27). In past years, attempts have been made to start waste treatment, but these efforts are not enough. Approximately 44% of construction and demolition waste was sent to sorting, and of that 44%, 33% was recycled, 22% was energy recovered, and 34% was sent to landfill (Bergsdal 28). Even with the waste sent for treatment, 40% of that was unspecified. Some waste was sent directly to recycling companies while some of it was disposed of illegally (Bergsdal 28).

In addition to  the waste produced through construction and demolition waste, we must also remember that when constructing an entire building, materials do not magically appear. Materials need to be transported to the site and through the transportation, greenhouse gases are released into the air, harming our planet. In fact,  greenhouse gas emissions from transportation accounted for about 27% of total greenhouse gas emissions, making it the second largest contributor in the United States right after electricity in 2013 (“Sources of Greenhouse Gas Emissions”).  While, renovation does not completely eliminate the need for material, it can reduce it which in turn reduces the overall need to transport those materials.

In 2014, San Francisco based DPR Construction achieved the renovation of an office building that has reached net positive energy. This office produces as much, if not more energy than it consumes while also being a renovation project. The team researched, designed, permitted, and built the highly efficient 24,000 square foot space within 5 months. The building includes sustainable technologies such as 118kw photovoltaic system to produce renewable energy and provide power throughout the office, a rooftop thermal water heating system, solar powered automatic operable skylights, and nine eight-foot Essence and four “Big Ass Fans” that efficiently flow air within the office. Along with the addition of efficient technologies, the office completed a structural renovation to support the new photovoltaic array on the roof, three living walls throughout the building and a living wine bar, and many of the materials used in the project were reclaimed wood from nearby projects that had recently been deconstructed. DPR Construction in San Francisco is one of only twelve buildings in the United States that have been certified as net zero energy.

  • General Lobby with one of three living walls.


Low Income Housing Solution

Because it is less profitable, developers ignore the low income housing market and focus on the high end segment. Combine this with the fact that 200,000 rental housing units are destroyed annually. This adds up to a shortage in low income rental housing.

This is unfortunate because renting remains one of the most viable options for low income residents and many are stuck in older, lower-quality apartments close to the urban core (Joint Center for Housing Studies). This puts them farther away from well-paying jobs and other opportunities for advancement. Without more production of affordable rentals in the suburbs and community development in city centers, the economic prospects of the nation’s most disadvantaged are only going to get worse.

Albeit challenging, adaptive reuse is an option for this shortage because it provides financial incentives for developers and solves some issues for the residents (Joint Center for Housing Studies). Adaptive reuse projects usually are able to receive “historic rehabilitation tax credit” which would help offset the cost of reuse projects. If geared toward low income housing, they may also qualify for  “low income housing tax credit” and could double the tax savings (Schalmo 10).

Along with the benefits for developers, adaptive reuse projects, because they are often sited in older neighborhoods or even historic districts, can situate residents much closer to centers of employment (Schalmo 9). This would shorten residents’ commute to work and allow them to walk or take public transit to work which harkens back to the sustainable benefits of adaptive reuse. A good example of low income residential adaptive reuse is Grainger Place, by the Landmark Group completed in 2000. It was an old school that was converted into housing for the elderly that won awards for historical preservation and development. Compared to other new construction of a similar scale, the cost was about the same (Schalmo 10). This goes to show that successful projects like these are economically possible.

Screen Shot 2015-12-13 at 6.47.34 PM


Cultural Recycling

The very nature of adaptive reuse lends itself to creating an environment that has a sense of place and history. Demolition and construction waste “injures cities images and memories” and literally changes the way we see our world, wiping history clean and starting again (Cerkez 94).“When a building of historic merit is preserved or restored for adaptive reuse, its cultural energy is also recycled. Old buildings preserve the local culture and identity and create a sense of belonging. In a way, we recycle embodied human resource energy along with material energy. We bring alive the past to be a part of the future, creating valuable connections through time.” (Cerkez 94) When designing a building, architects have to consider the cultural and historical context. The identity of the place is then affirmed through the design. Unlike new construction, reuse projects don’t have to try and fit in- they are already part of the community.

There are times where renovations would have been a better option than new construction For example, the original Pennsylvania Station in New York City (1910) was demolished in 1963 and replaced with the modern underground structure that stands today. Much backlash was felt  when the building was demolished because it had stood as a historical monument. What is frustrating now is the difference in atmosphere and experience. The old building stood tall, above ground, and grand while the new one is underground, low, and oppressive.  

  • Interior view of Pennsylvania Station

Architectural Design Challenge

Using abandoned or already existing buildings creates interesting, compelling design challenges for architects. The constraint of an already existing building allows designers to become innovative and solve problems, while also respecting the history of the site. Architects give these buildings new life, new meaning, and a new function while respecting what had occurred before their project. This recycles the “cultural energy” of what was there before. This allows design to blend into the language of its surroundings, while still doing something new. This kind of work would not merely be a renovation, but the entire purpose of the building would be redefined to become whatever our society needs most.


Branded Buildings:

Branded buildings, such as McDonalds or CVS Pharmacy depend heavily on the shape and design of their building to reiterate the branding. Companies such as McDonald’s will demolish and rebuild for small reasons as simple as they are trying to update the look of their brand. Why do we allow for the pointless changes that create demolition and construction waste and so much more? Branded buildings can still be created and gain from adaptive reuse and renovation. Renovating, rather than demolishing, would allow for the business to stay open while renovations are being completed. It would also take less time to construct because there would not be demolition or construction from scratch.

Located in the Palisades, Washington, D.C. there is a CVS that defies the idea that branded buildings have to demolish and rebuild for their locations. This CVS is a converted old movie theater. The design keeps the integrity of the old movie theater while also having a recognizable brand.

CVS|Pharmacy, Palisades, Washington, D.C.
CVS|Pharmacy, Palisades, Washington, D.C.

Another, larger, example is the Bastard Store, located in Milan. Designed by Studiometrico, the shopfront, officers, warehouse, and skate bowl are located within a 1900’s cinema. It stays true to as much of the cinema as was possible, but also reflects the brand’s gnarly attitude toward snowboarding. The juxtaposition of the prior program and the current program is an idea that can be appreciated and is much more complex than if they had torn down the cinema and built a new, sleek, snowboarding headquarters.

  • Original Milan Theater


In Conclusion:

As sustainability is becoming a requirement rather than an option, we as designers have to ask ourselves if it is really worth building new. With a site that already has a building on it, there is no need for a new building because we can effectively reuse the building that is already there. Even without considering the environmental side of things, adaptive reuse presents many more benefits that new construction simply cannot imitate.



Baer, William C. “Empty Housing Space: An Overlooked Resource.”Policy Studies Journal 8.2 (1979): 220-27. Web.

Bergsdal, Håvard, Rolf André Bohne, and Helge Brattebø. “Projection of Construction and Demolition Waste in Norway.”Journal of Industrial Ecology 11.3 (2007): 27-39. Web.

Bullen, Peter A. “Adaptive Reuse and Sustainability of Commercial Buildings.” Facilities 25.1/2 (2007): 20-31. Web.

Power, A. “Housing and Sustainability: Demolition or Refurbishment?”Proceedings of the ICE – Urban Design and Planning163.4 (2010): 205-16. Web.

“47-2061 Construction Laborers.” U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 25 Mar. 2015. Web. 25 Oct. 2015.

Joint Center for Housing Studies. “America’s Rental Housing: Homes for a Diverse Nation.” (Publication of the Joint Center for Housing Studies, Harvard University). HARVARD JOINT CENTER FOR HOUSING STUDIES, 8 Mar. 2006. Web. 23 Oct. 2015.

Kellert, S. R. 2005. Chapter 4: Biophilic design in Building for Life: Designing and Understanding the Human-Nature Connection.Washington, DC: Island Press. pp. 123-177.

Power, Anne. “Does Demolition or Refurbishment of Old and Inefficient Homes Help to Increase Our Environmental, Social and Economic Viability?” Energy Policy 36.12 (2008): 4487-501. Web.

SCHALMO, Barbara Elwood. “COVERING THE COST OF HISTORIC PRESERVATION IN AFFORDABLE HOUSING: Exploring the Adequacy of the Historic Rehabilitation Tax Credit to Cover the Increased Development Cost of Adaptive Reuse

“Sources of Greenhouse Gas Emissions.” Greenhouse Gas Emissions: Transportation Sector Emissions. N.p., n.d. Web. 25 Oct. 2015.

Projects for Affordable Housing.” University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, May 2008. Web. 25 Oct. 2015.

Tränkler, Josef O.v., Isa Walker, and Max Dohmann. “Environmental Impact of Demolition Waste — An Overview on 10 Years of Research and Experience.” Waste Management 16.1-3 (1996): 21-26. Web.



    On July 18, 2013, the city of Detroit filed for Chapter 9 bankruptcy. A city that once was bustling with citizens and a booming automotive industry has since suffered economic turmoil. Its people left after the success of the postwar years, a 63% decrease in population since 1950 (Hobbs and Stoop 2002). Most startling is the amount of unused, abandoned land. There are currently 78,000 structures accompanied by 66,000 lots currently sitting idle, falling to ruin in the city of Detroit. These abandoned sites become magnets for violent crimes, but through adaptive reuse they could see an alternative fate of bringing sustainability, cultural value, and economic development to Detroit. Rather than allowing old, industrial buildings to fall to ruin, the city of Detroit should incentivize private investors to revitalize these buildings to become sustainable and viable centers of activity through adaptive reuse.

    Detroit needs revitalizing through adaptive reuse. Adaptive reuse is the act of creating new built opportunities within existing built forms, often abandoned and in unceasing decay. Adaptive reuse can accommodate for the social, political and economic progress within a community. It is found most often that abandoned, industrial buildings are located in prime, dynamic spaces such as along a waterfront or in proximity to historic landmarks. It is a sustainable approach for architectural design, especially in cities such as Detroit.

    There are crucial steps to successfully implement adaptive reuse projects in Detroit. The first step is to evaluate existing conditions. Designers should thoroughly evaluate the existing fabric in order to make the most of the conditions and former structural, mechanical, electrical, architectural and landscape systems. The second step is to update systems to comply with current codes. Most issues with code compliance have to deal with energy standards, accessibility and fire regulations. The next step is to insert contextual program. The context must be highly considered in order to insert effective program. Industrial spaces are most effectively converted into to retail and community spaces.

Why is adaptive reuse the solution to Detroit?

An existing building has ecological, cultural, economic, and financial value. Instead of inevitably becoming a burden on a community, an industrial building can serve as a hub for urban life and create opportunities for natural urban development.

  1. Sustainability. Reusing the existing structure decreases the environmental damage resulting from transportation and production of materials.
  2. Improving cultural value and identity. Enhancing the identity of a culture maintains history and memory in place while providing new function for its survival. Bringing authenticity to a site also acknowledges the significance of an existing use and space.
  3. Embracing development of economy. Repurposing a building helps accommodate cultural changes because “Adaptive re-use projects speak to a wider cultural shift – from an industrial and manufacturing based economy to one centered around services, education and cultural life” (Harrison 2014).
  4. Net cost can be less than new construction. Consuming less energy and using fewer building materials, the net cost of an adaptive reuse project can be less than new construction (Thornton 2011). Although sometimes the initial cost of adaptive reuse is more, as the cost of energy continues to rise, new construction becomes a more expensive option when considering its life cycle.

    Other major cities have utilized adaptive reuse to capture these values that abandoned structures bring to urban life. Ghirardelli Square was the first successful example of adaptive reuse seen in the United States. In the 1960s, the existing factory buildings were
Ghirardelli Square, circa early 1900s                  

purchased by William Roth, who hired Lawrence Halprin, landscape architect, and Wurster, Bernardi & Emmons architectural firm to create a design to accommodate retail spaces, offices, restaurants and a movie theater (Sharpe 2012). This project preserved the history and authenticity of the site, prevented the demolition of a storied building, and developed a new economic center, serving as a strong example of values 2 and 3. 

Across the country, the Brewery in Milwaukee presents a strong case for values 1, 2 and 3 in a very extensive and ambitious project that plans for the adaptive reuse and “environmentally sensitive restoration” amongst the remains of the Pabst Brewing Company (Benfield 2011).

Courtesy Jeramey Jannene, licensed under Wikimedia Commons
The Brewery, 2011                                                  Courtesy Jeramey Jannene, licensed under Wikimedia Commons

The master plan of this project by Joseph Zilber includes residential lofts, a beer hall, office space, educational campuses, urban parks, senior living facilities, and medical campuses with more retail and luxury spaces to develop in the future. The success of this project relies on the cooperation between the developers, the city, and the LEED Neighborhood Development program. While this is a project under various stages of development, the existing structures that have been built have successfully brought community and life into a previously abandoned space.

    In Detroit, Michigan Central Station and Harbor Terminal offer great opportunity for adaptive reuse because of their size, space and location. Michigan Central Station is a critical structure for adaptive reuse. With a space large enough for a train on the ground floor and an 18 story tower with hotel and office space above, this is prime real estate sitting vacant. An approach like that of Ghirardelli Square would be ideal, so that the history of the site and building may be preserved, bringing back the heyday of Detroit with a new era of use, featuring offices, retail space, and residential living. This site would be an excellent opportunity for all four values. Reusing existing structure conserves materials and cost. The quality and ornateness of existing materials are so expensive in today’s market, that this saves a quantifiable amount of money and preserves the original beauty. The cultural improvement will be immediately evident through restoration with a visual link to the history of Detroit. The creation of new retail space allows the community to effortlessly embrace new economic development.

Photographer: Zach Fein
Michigan Central Station                                                                      Architects: Warren & Wetmore and Reed & Stem, 1913          Photographer: Zach Fein

    Another potential site is the Harbor Terminal building. This huge warehouse currently sits vacant, but is an ideal candidate for adaptive reuse that could be turned into a multi-functional building with the creation of new waterfront urban space along the Detroit River as well. If the remains of the Pabst Brewing Company can be given a new life, why not this warehouse? While this could potentially be a more costly proposition, values 1, 2, and 3 could still be achieved. Materials would be conserved as the existing shell of the warehouse space allows for program to be directly inserted inside. By developing a new waterfront space, a new community center would be created along with a new economic hub and destination for not only residents of Detroit, but tourists as well.

Zack Fein
Harbor Terminal Building, 1925                                   Photographer:Zack Fein

    The obstacle to implementing adaptive reuse in Detroit is the financial commitment needed to update systems and meet today’s code requirements. While preserving the history of a site is a very integral component of design, to private investors this does not always make adaptive reuse worth the financial obligations. Adaptive reuse can be a very financially involved and time intensive project. It is not always as simple as taking an old building and moving in new program. The mechanical and HVAC systems of these abandoned buildings are often out of date (if they even still function) and require extensive updates and installation of new modern systems. These systems are expensive to install for large buildings, and become even more expensive with the increase of sustainable measures (Donofrio 2012). Additionally, older buildings often do not meet today’s code and accessibility requirements. This may involve moving existing walls and structural elements in an attempt to make it compliant. While designers may love the opportunity to bring back the glory of an old architectural wonder, investors will often only see the dollars signs associated with doing such a task. For many investors it is cheaper to tear down a building and start from scratch. With all the necessary updates and adjustments that require extensive funds and construction, many say why bother with adaptive reuse?

    Although the initial costs may be greater, the adaptive reuse of an existing building is the answer to revitalizing Detroit. For private investors who don’t see the value of cultural and historic preservation, there is a monetary incentive in place. For a site like Michigan Central Station on the National Register of Historic Places, a 20% income tax credit is available. Meanwhile, Harbor Terminal Building, being built before 1936, is eligible for a 10% income tax credit (U.S. National Park Service 2010). This program offered by the Internal Revenue Service and National Park Service encourages private sector investment in adaptive reuse that allows the preservation of historic sites, while creating jobs and revitalizing communities. Private investors and the local government can both benefit from a system like this.

    Through the designer’s efforts to evaluate existing conditions, meet code compliance, and insert contextual program, adaptive reuse will offer an opportunity for Michigan Central Station and Harbor Terminal to revitalize the city of Detroit. Seeing the success of great urban works in cities such as Milwaukee and San Francisco, we believe adaptive reuse is the future for the success of revitalizing cities in our coming generation. We can take these old buildings, install updated systems, insert new program, and create a sustainable, viable space for the community. We believe that adaptive reuse could be just the change Detroit needs. While proposals have been made for sites such as Michigan Central Station, no actual renovation has begun. Through tax incentives, local government support, and community engagement, adaptive reuse can revitalize Detroit.



Benfield, Kaid. “A Green Neighborhood Brewing in Milwaukee.” CityLab. The Atlantic, 22 Sept. 2011. Web. 25 Oct. 2015.

Binder, Melinda. “Adaptive Reuse and Sustainable Design: A Holistic Approach for Abandoned Industrial Buildings.” University of Cincinnati, 2003.

Hobbs, Frank and Stoops, Nicole. “Demographic Trends in the 20th Century; Census 2000 Special Reports” Decennial Census of Population, 1900 to 2000.  U.S. Census Bureau, Nov. 2002. Web. 10 Dec. 2015.

Donofrio, Gregory. “Preservation by Adaptation: Is it Sustainable?” Change Over Time 2.2 (2012): 106-31.

Harrison, Stuart. Adaptive Re-use. Adelaide: Office for Design and Architecture, 2014. Web.

Sharpe, Sara E., “Revitalizing Cities: Adaptive Reuse of Historic Structures” (2012). Mid-America College Art Association Conference 2012 Digital Publications. Paper 18.

Spivak, Jeffrey. “Adaptive Use Is Reinventing Detroit.” Urban Land Magazine. The Magazine of the Urban Land Institute, 14 Sept. 2015. Web. 24 Sept. 2015.

Thornton, BJ. “The Greenest Building (Is The One That You Don’t Build!) Effective Techniques for Sustainable Adaptive Reuse/Renovation.” Journal of Green Building 6.1 (2011; 1901): 1-7.

U.S. National Park Service. “Tax Incentives—Technical Preservation Services, National Park Service.” National Parks Service. U.S. Department of the Interior, 2010. Web. 09 Dec. 2015.

Featured Image by Zach Fein