Factors influencing the adaptive
re-use of buildings
Peter Bullen and Peter Love
Department of Construction Management,
Curtin University of Technology, Perth, Australia
Purpose – Adaptive re-use enables a building to suit new conditions. It is a process that reaps the
improve the sustainability of buildings have tended to focus on new construction projects rather than
existing ones. One reason is the tendency to regard old buildings as products with a limited useful life
that havetobeeventually discardedanddemolished. Muchoftheexisting building stockwillstillbein
re-use and the ongoing sustainability of building stock. The purpose of this paper is to provide a
comprehensive review of the factors influencing the decision to adopt an adaptive re-use strategy.
Design/methodology/approach – Adaptive re-use is beginning to receive attention, yet there is a
lack of consensus as to whether it is an appropriate strategy for meeting the changing needs and
demands of developers, occupiers and owners for existing building stock. Considering the limited
published research on adaptive re-use in buildings, particularly in the context of sustainability,
a comprehensive review of the normative literature is undertaken to determine the factors influencing
the decision-making process for its use.
Findings – It is revealed that the major drivers for adaptive focus on lifecycle issues, changing
a perception of increased maintenance costs, building regulations, inertia of development criteria and
theinherent riskanduncertainty associatedwitholder buildingstock.Theidentification ofdriversand
barriers has enabled a balanced view of the adaptive re-use debate to be presented.
Research limitations/implications – Thepaperconcludesthatmoreempiricalresearchisrequired
an effective strategy that drives the formulation of public policy for addressing the issues associated
with existing building stock.
Practical implications – Theresearchidentifieskeyadaptivere-useissuesthatneedtobeaddressed
by policy makers, developers and owners during the formative stages of the design process so that
efforts toward sustainability can be ameliorated. Addressing a building’s adaptive re-use will
significantly reduce whole life costs, waste and lead to the improved building functionality.
Originality/value – Thispaperprovidespolicymakersandkeydecisionmakerswiththeunderlying
factors that need to be considered when implementing an adaptive re-use policy as part of their
Keywords Buildings, Sustainable development
Paper type General review
Adaptive re-use has become an integral strategy to ameliorate the financial,
environmental and social performance of buildings (Langston et al., 2007). The
Department of Environment and Heritage (2004) defines adaptive re-use as “a process
purpose”. Continual demand for new and improved operational and sustainability
The current issue and full text archive of this journal is available at
Received 2 June 2009
Journal of Engineering, Design and
Vol. 9 No. 1, 2011
q Emerald Group Publishing Limited
land availability becomes scarce. Yet, it has been estimated that buildings that require
demolition account for only 0.5-1 per cent of the existing stock with the remainder
having a further 30-50 years of life (Petersdorff et al., 2004; Nye and Rydin, 2006;
Hakkinen, 2007). In fact, Shah and Kumar (2005b) proffer that in the case of significant
public buildings their life could extend in excess of 80 years. With the life of buildings
being extended adaptive re-use will play a pivotal role in meeting the increasing
demand for facilities and regeneration of the built environment (Kurul, 2007;
Langston et al., 2007).
Until recently, demolition decisions have been based on economic factors and
as a result buildings have been demolished prematurely (Langston et al., 2007).
Traditionally, the opportunities to maximize plot ratios provided by demolition have
been a more attractive investment proposition for developers than building re-use. The
simply because they are old or inefficient. There are signs that this mindset is changing
as more is being spent on refurbishing and reusing buildings than constructing new
ones with re-use becoming a prominent strategy (Douglas, 2002; Ball, 2002; Latham,
2000; de Valence, 2004; Property Council of Australia, 2004; Langston et al., 2007). With
this in mind, this paper provides a comprehensive review of the factors influencing the
decision to adopt an adaptive re-use strategy. As there has been limited published
in this contemporary and contentious area.
Demolition, redevelop and re-use
The shift to building re-use and adaptation has become an increasing trend within
the built environment (Ball, 1999; Bon and Hutchinson, 2000; de Valence, 2004;
Gallant and Blickle, 2005; Kohler, 2006; Bradley and Kohler, 2007; van Beuren and de
Jong, 2007). In many cases, increasing the life of a building through re-use can lower
material, transport and energy consumption and pollution and thus make a significant
2007; Velthuis and Spennemann, 2007). There is ubiquitous convergence researchers
that adaptation can make a significant contribution to the sustainability of existing
buildings (Brand, 1994; Pickard, 1996; Cooper, 2001; Balaras et al., 2004; Bromley et al.,
2005; Kurul, 2007). There is also a growing perception that it is cheaper to convert
old buildings to new uses than to demolish and rebuild (Vanegas et al., 1995; Ball,
2002; Department of Environment and Heritage, 2004; Douglas, 2002; Gregory, 2004;
anyinherent negativeenvironmentalimpactwillbe spread overlong periods(Itardand
Klunder, 2007). Such longevity also raises technical problems, particularly with respect
to the durability of external fabric and finishes. When the external fabric of a building
begins to deteriorate then this can cause significant problems when considering re-use.
Ball (1999) suggests that such technical challenges require a wide range of renovation
(Shipley et al., 2006).
build have received widespread debate. Hall(1998), Douglas (2006) and Kohler and Yang
(2007) have proffered that the costs of reusing buildings are lower than the equivalent
costs of demolition. It is potentially cheaper to adapt than to demolish and rebuild
as contract periods are typically shorter. Refurbishing to sustainability standards can,
however, generate a cost uplift of 3-12 per cent over the cost of a standard re-use project
(Shipley et al., 2006; Ellison et al., 2007).
Buildings are generally demolished because they no longer have any value (Kohler
and Yang, 2007). In most cases it is the market that sets this value, even though such
an assessment may be based on incomplete information with no consideration given
toward externalities. Douglas (2006) maintains that there is considerable value attached
to retaining style and character and the so-called “solid build qualities of buildings”.
According to Ball (2003) it is generally preferable to repair a building than replace it
because the value of the location and quality of a new building is not necessarily better
than the old one. In contrast, O’Donnell (2004) suggest that an adapted building will not
completely match a new building in terms of performance, but the shortfall should be
balanced against gains in social value.
Demolition is often selected when the life expectancy of an existing building is
may inject (Douglas, 2002). According to Davies (2004) this would only justify limited
investment on a short-term basis prior to disposal and redevelopment. Certainly the
lifecycle expectancy of the materials in an older building may well fall short of those in
a new building. The age of materials will also directly affect the ongoing maintenance
costs of an adapted building, which, as a result, may well be higher than those for a new
Adaptive re-use strategies are preferable to demolition if the objectives of
environmental sustainability and reduced energy consumption are also to be met
(Klunder, 2005; Thomsen and van der Flier, 2006). The central issues are that a static
the quicker and easier to adapt, which represents a saving in the time and productivity
lost during “office churn” (Boehland, 2003).
Adaptive re-use also offers a more efficient and effective process of dealing with
buildings than demolition. This is because it is deemed to be safer as it reduces the
amount ofdisturbanceduetohazardousmaterials,contaminatedground andtheriskof
falling materials and dust. In particular, site work is also more convenient because the
existing building presents a work enclosure that reduces downtime from inclement
probably uses less energy than demolition and rebuilding. Evidence clearly suggests
thattheopportunities created by adaptivere-usegenerallyoutweighthosepresentedby
demolition and rebuilding (Ball, 1999; Brand, 1994; Cooper, 2001; Douglas, 2002; Kohler
and Hassler, 2002; Petersen, 2002).
discarding,expandingorchanging thefunction oftheirbuildings. Thedecisionprocess
act in tandem. These factors influence the operational efficiency of buildings but also
their effectiveness in achieving sustainability outcomes. Establishing the viability of
adaptive re-use as an option, therefore, relies on identifying and understanding the
extent to which both outcomes are influenced by these factors. The drivers and barriers
Figure 1 and are discussed below.
Factors driving adaptive re-use
A number of factors having been driving the growth of adaptive re-use including
cost-effectiveness and the value of it as a practical strategy for delivering buildings for
new uses. A key driverhasbeen rising energycosts,which hasincreased the costofnew
construction (e.g. materials, transport, resources) and resulted in clients opting to re-use
existing building stock (Douglas, 2002; Kohler and Yang, 2007). Ellison et al. (2007)
suggest that rising energy prices will drive property investors to improve the energy
efficiency of buildings so that they can maintain market demand and rental growth.
Significant growth in the construction of new buildings during the last four decades has
created a wealth of built stock and as a result there are many buildings available for
refurbishment and re-use (Shah and Kumar, 2005a). Though, many of these buildings
way to address this “environmental gap” by functionally improving a building’s
performance while simultaneously reducing its environmental loading.
require room to expand within an existing building. The reconfiguration of space is
often a more effective solution than relocation, particularly as re-use is less disruptive
(van der Voordt, 2004). Success would, however, critically depend on the adaptability
of the space within the existing building. Ellison et al. (2007) suggest that buildings
with low flexibility are of less value than a more adaptable alternative because they
require costlyrefitstoaccommodate changing spatialneeds.Conversely,buildingsthat
incorporate space that is adaptable to changing needs require less frequent and less
costly refits and remain sustainable over longer periods.
Drivers and barriers
of adaptive re-use
Adaptive reuse of existing
Increased building life
Lower material, transport and
Reduced resource consumption
Less material waste
Rising energy costs
Reduce negative impact of
Changing work patterns
Requirement for multiple use
refurbish or re-build
socially and environmentally (+)
Condition of external fabric
Higher rental in reuse buildings
Lack of skilled tradesmen
Building layout ( e.g., space
Health and safety requirements
Commercial risk and uncertainty
Low quality construction
Rents tend to be higher in buildings that have been adapted. Whether occupiers are
and reduced energy bills over the period for which the tenant occupied the building.
Needless to say, the cost of upgrades needs to be balanced against current rent levels
because occupierswouldbe reluctantto payabove market rates just because abuilding
is more energy efficient (Ellison et al., 2007). Adair et al. (2003) and de Valence (2004)
suggest that the changing preference of building users to adaptive re-use is driven by a
commitment to sustainability juxtaposed with the need to improve the aesthetics of
existing buildings. Likewise, Yau et al. (2008) state that adaptive re-use creates the
opportunity to reduce the negative visual impact of poor quality buildings. This can
provide an opportunity to re-life an existing building and optimize its whole lifecycle
costs (Shah and Kumar, 2005a).
As the needs of owners and occupants continually change, this will invariably drive
buildings to be re-used more frequently (Jones Lang Lasalle, 2005; Lufkin et al., 2005).
of buildings but by changing user expectations (Kohler and Yang, 2007). If response to
changing expectations is not met then buildings may experience higher occupancy
the buildings would be less sustainable, because they would experience higher vacancy
rates than alternative buildings that are more readily adaptable.
The operational energy in commercial buildings has increased significantly during
the last four decades and, therefore, energy improvements through adaptive re-use can
provide significant cost savings for occupiers (Brown, 2006; Bruhns et al., 2006).
Accordingly, several Australian Government agencies such as the Green Building
Council of Australia (2006) and the Department of Environment and Heritage (2005)
have espoused the need to reduce the environmental loading of their buildings and
implemented a strategy to retrofit. Moreover, the Green Building Council of Australia
(2006) has suggested that government should only tenant sustainable buildings.
The life expectancy of buildings has been identified as an important issue that
determines whether they are re-used or demolished (Bradley and Kohler, 2007). Kendall
(1999) suggests that by extending the lifecycle of a building the ageing asset, existing
failures and resourcing requirements can be dealt with effectively. Addressing such
issues enables buildings to be stabilized so that they are able to accommodate new
technologies. In addition, it allows for changes in the organization of work and the
particularly where greater flexibility and worker and space efficiencies are required, is
significant to investment performance (Ellison et al., 2007). Buildings that can adapt to
constant changing market demands would be more sustainable and provide investors
with confidence as long-term investments. When buildings are constructed for both
present requirements and future change, real estate decisions will effectively begin to
represent a sustainable investment.
Residual service life expectancy is based on matching user requirements to
resource availability and the capability of the building over the whole of its lifecycle.
Yet, estimating the service life of buildings remains a problematic issue (Lutzkendorf
the physical life or a client’s expected time line for the building. Compounding this
problem is the fact that estimation of future maintenance and operating costs of a
building requires observation and longitudinal evidence to determine the life of
materials and components (Lutzkendorf and Lorenz, 2005). As a result, there may be
considerable differences between the estimates produced by building owners and
occupiers and those calculated by property investors and developers.
Despite these estimation differences the residual service life method is considered to
be the most accurate way to estimate the optimum service life of built asset (Shah and
Kumar, 2005a). Although the process is complex it prioritizes investment choices in
relation to social, economic, environmental and governance factors. In many cases the
residual service life expectancy of a building may be less than a new replacement,
materials may fall short of new replacements. This will directly impact ongoing
maintenance costs of the adapted building, as they can be higher than those for a new
building (Douglas, 2006).
Changing perceptions of buildings
Hassler et al. (2000) suggests that buildings that are able to provide multiple uses by
adaptive re-use are in great demand. Conversely, Velthuis and Spennemann (2007)
suggest that other motives such as the growth of appreciation for built heritage is
driving the growth in support for adaptive re-use. Despite the increasing demand for
adaptive re-use it remains an anathema to many architects and most of the building
professions (Gregory, 2004). Many architects believe that adapting older buildings for
multiple uses is less prestigious than constructing new ones, and inhibits their creative
opportunities. Yet, it is often the constraints that are imposed upon them, which results
in innovation and outcomes that are of significance to the wider community. Older
buildings provide an essential platform for providing a social and economic edge to
sustainability (Ball, 1999).
to occupy buildings in locations where normally they would only have the choice of
newer buildings at much higher rent levels. Older buildings may present reduced levels
or less profitable organizations. Eventual commercial success by these organizations
may in the long term generate opportunities for them to either upgrade their buildings
through adaptive re-use or relocate to new ones.
urban property, particularly older buildings, generally pursues the sustainable
development tenet of economic growth. Unfortunately, retrofitting older buildings with
equipment and service upgrades to improve energy efficiency can be a difficult and
expensive process. Such improvements, however, can achieve as much as 20 per cent
energy savings with a payback period of one to two years (Bradford, 2007). Continual
generates the prospect of stock shortages for the foreseeable future until new office
been offered low rents and incentives to occupy buildings, it has been predicted that in
future they will struggle to find large amounts of contiguous space in the business
districts of cities (Property Council of Australia, 2006). This type of prediction tends to
drive developers to increase their available building stock by adapting existing and
heritage buildings for new uses.
Government agencies are prime candidates to implement an adaptive re-use strategy
appropriate buildings to adapt and re-use (California Commissioning Collaborative,
2006). According to Barber (2003) and Shipley et al. (2006) government agencies can also
encourage development, particularly in the case of heritage buildings, through the use
of financial incentives. This has generally not been the case, however, for example,
Green Building Council of Australia (2006) has been critical of the government, as it has
eschewed supporting, leading and providing incentives for adaptive re-use. The lack of
incentive invariably results in adaptive re-use becoming an unappealing exercise for
developers. This is further exacerbated by the often inconsistent application of local
authority requirements. The varying interpretation of requirements that affect re-used
buildings can lead to myopic decisions being made by developers when consider
they are confronted with retaining or demolishing a building. In swaying developers to
embrace sustainability, government clearly needs to generate policy initiatives that
encourage adaptive re-use. One such strategy is to introduce a degree of flexibility to
incorporate a set of reusability criteria but the code should not be relaxed to simply
accommodate re-use issues.
The City of Los Angeles Adaptive Reuse Program (2004), for example, uses an
ordinance to streamline the application process and provide more flexibility in meeting
provide income and property tax reductions and construction incentives that offer
have to satisfy planning and building code requirements but are subject to exemptions
to comply with building codes during adaptive re-use are fire protection, disabled
access and parking allocation requirements. The building code in Ontario, Canada, has
to encourage adaptive re-use, but at the same time still maintain standards of safety.
allow some discretion for parking requirements.
The use of subsidies and incentives for adaptive re-use by public organizations such
as the Urban Renewal Authority and Housing Society of Hong Kong are helping to
effect of increasing the values of adjacent property. Encouraging adaptive re-use may
involve a series of steps, which include making inventories of potential adaptive re-use
sites, amending local zoning regulations, arranging for possible property transfers of
publicly owned buildings, and providing assistance in obtaining sources of funding
such as loans, grants and rent subsidies (Municipal Research and Services Center of
The Commissionof theEuropeanUnion (2002) issuedadirectivethatmemberstates
were required to introduce legislation to make existing buildings more energy efficient.
This also ensured the incorporation of energy improvements during the refurbishment
and adaptive re-use of buildings. According to Lutzkendorf and Lorenz (2005)
similar initiatives are being made in Australia, Canada and the USA, together with
the introduction of incentives such as tax credits and subsidy programs. The Green
Building Council of Australia (2006) state that government should generate tax
incentives to enable building owners to address the poor environmental performance of
consumption, resource use and emissions generated by buildings are reduced.
Barriers to adaptive re-use
The complexity associated with converting an old building to new uses is a
major determinant facing adaptive re-use projects (Kurul, 2007). This is because older
buildings typically do not provide voids or access ways and sufficient room to retrofit
modern services such as air-conditioning. Overcoming this problem may add to the
design and construction time needed to finish the project. Other barriers include
unfamiliarity of trades people with older materials, the necessity of detailed structural
evaluation and planning, or the need to work around occupiers of the facility. Despite
these barriers, the benefits of choosing rehabilitation, over new construction, will
generally offset any additional time taken to complete a project (Douglas, 2006).
The assessment of a building’s physical and operating for adaptive re-use can be a time
the structure and fabric of buildings may have deteriorated to a point where high levels
of maintenance and repair are required, which can affect the building’s usage. In this
situation,for example, the building maynot be aviableproposition for re-use dueto the
continuing high maintenance and repair costs. The current layout of a building may
also be inappropriate for any change of use, particularly if it contains a large number
of columns or internal partition walls. Remoy and van der Voordt (2007) suggest that
buildings of this nature are not flexible enough to be re-used and have poor spatial
quality. Office buildings that are functionally or technically outdated for multiple uses
and have low visual quality should be demolished. O’Donnell (2004) supports this view
because older buildings may also not reach the desired standards of new buildings in
terms of operating performance. Any shortfalls should, however, be balanced against
potential gains in social value from adaptive re-use.
Building code compliance
up to current performance levels, as required by new building codes and regulations
(Cooper, 2001). This creates an obstacle to change of use because it may take extensive
modificationsand expense toensurethatolder buildingscomply. In Western Australia,
for example, the performance-based building code allows some flexibility in terms of
options to satisfy current code requirements, but adaptive re-use may still involve
substantial expenditure by the developer. Shipley et al. (2006) states that developers
often complain about the inflexibility of building codes and other regulations in
the requirements for reusing buildings. Any consideration for further relaxations for
adaptive re-use projects would, however, need to be balanced against the risks it could
create for the health and safety of occupants.
Changing the classification of buildings through adaptive re-use may result in zoning
changes and the need for compliance with new building codes (Langston et al., 2007).
This applies pressure to designers to find solutions, particularly with older buildings,
but there may be compensations for developers in the shape of gaining floor space
efficiencies. St Lawrence (2003) suggests that urban planners have the opportunity to
make a significant difference to environmental outcomes for development. Yet, they do
are starting to take note of sustainability issues such as climate change and reflecting
this in the requirements of building codes, standards and regulations (Department for
Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, 2007).
Inertia of production and development criteria
Many areas of contemporary cities were constructed under a set of production
and developmental criteria that were very different from those currently in use
developers, designers and the like who are striving to improve the environmental
regeneration programs can be and have been widely used, though there are drawbacks
to this approach. For example, regeneration schemes such as the London Docklands,
Swansea Maritime Quarter, Bristol Docklands and Cardiff Bay redevelopments,
only produced a limited amount of affordable residential units (Bromley et al., 2005).
While such regeneration schemes are good examples of adaptive re-use on a
large-scale they did not, therefore, fully satisfy the tenets of sustainability from a social
Commercial risk and uncertainty
Many contractors are unwilling to renovate old buildings (Municipal Research &
Services Center of Washington, 1997). This is because of the “perceived” risk that
lengthy or difficult renovations may decrease profit margins (Reyers and Mansfield,
2001). Thisis furtherexacerbated by the difficulty of raising finance foradaptivere-use
unknown work, scope changes, compatibility of materials, quality of information and
the operating environment, health and safety, design constraints and decanting of
occupants (Reyers and Mansfield, 2001; Cox, 2004).
Remoy and van der Voordt (2007) state that a lack of accurate information and
drawings for older buildings is an issue that can potentially stymie the re-use process.
In addition, the discovery of latent problems, defects or dimensional and material
inconsistencies may affect the success of adaptive re-use. O’Donnell (2004) suggests
that buildings owners would not see any economic benefit in updating buildings
to sustainability standards. Commercial property markets have only a limited response
to the sustainability agenda (Pivo and McNamara, 2005; Ellison and Sayce, 2007).
This has often been blamed on the lack of a suitable business case for procuring
sustainable buildings (Pett et al., 2004; Sayce et al., 2007). However, Davies (2004) and
Wall (2004) suggest there is a genuine intent by building owners to embrace
sustainability. It has been suggested by Gulliver (2004) that failing to upgrade existing
buildings to the required sustainability standards limits the market potential for a
building. Fundamentally, sustainable buildings perform better economically, socially
and environmentally (Zimmerman and Martin, 2001; Kats et al., 2004; Lutzkendorf and
Lorenz, 2005) and as a result, reflect an improved market performance.
Financial and technical perceptions
Better knowledge and understanding of the building stock is required so that a
comprehensive conservation strategy for adaptive re-use can be propagated. To be
they have convinced developers that adaptive re-use would be too expensive and
demolition is the only way to acquire a reasonable profit. Unfortunately, this has lead to
hundreds of older buildings being prematurely demolished (Shipley et al., 2006). It has
been suggested by the Green Building Council of Australia (2006) that there is a lack of
value attached to the long-term benefits of “green buildings”. There has been too great a
focus on short-term construction and a culture of building cheap for demolition in the
future. Itard and Klunder (2007) state that if buildings are produced to low quality
the financial and technical resources needed to solve these problems may preclude
adopting renovation, leaving demolition as the only viable solution.
Investorsand developers typically base their adaptive re-use decisions on perceptions
rather than an objective assessment of risk, complexity, cost and value (Kurul, 2007).
However, with the rising costs of new construction this trend appears to be reversing as
most adaptive re-use projects now compete economically with redevelopment (Bullen,
are not available in equivalent new buildings (Bullen, 2007). The actual costs of adaptive
re-use projects still remain very difficult to define, despite the growing body of evidence
that supports their viability compared with demolition and redevelopment. Physical and
operational attributes of older buildings vary considerably and consequently the costs of
carried out. For example, a study by Mills et al. (2005) revealed that the cost to carry out
the adaptive re-use to a selection of different buildings ranged from US$0.13 to0.45/sq.ft.
The California Commissioning Collaborative (2006) state that the size of a building is a
predominant factorin the cost of adaptive re-use and suggest thatthe larger the building
the less it would cost per unit of area.
The research identifies key adaptive re-use issues that need to be addressed by policy
efforts toward sustainability can be ameliorated. Addressing a building’s adaptive
As buildings age their operational performance typically reduces until eventually
they fall below the expectations of building owners and occupiers. Apart from the
natural depreciation of the buildings fabric and systems their effectiveness is impacted
by changing market demands. The resultant declining operating performance is a
critical issue that owners and operators have to deal with during the potentially long
lifecycles of their buildings. Responding to declining performance frequently results in
decisions to demolish and redevelop buildings that are justified purely on economic
value of buildings that could be optimized by adapting and refurbishing using the
process of adaptive re-use. Failing to optimize buildings also means that their residual
lifecycle expectancy is not fully exploited which is a basic problem in adopting a more
re-use strategy have been identified from a thorough review of the normative literature.
Adaptive re-use is beginning to receive widespread attention because of the
economic, social and environmental benefits that can be espoused. However, the jury
appears to be still out on whether adaptive re-use is the most appropriate strategy for
meeting the changing needs and demands of developers, occupiers and owners for
exiting building stock. Thus, more empirical research is required to examine the role of
adaptive re-use in the context of its contribution to sustainability.
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