The triple bottom-line benefits of adaptive re-use of heritage buildings

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Heritage buildings are repositories of urban history and social memory. Retrofitting, adapting and reusing them can help cut our carbon footprint while linking the past with the present and the future.


Despite increasingly stringent heritage protection measures across Australia, the demolition and re-construction of new buildings is still generally favoured over the adaptive reuse of heritage buildings. That is largely because of rapid urban growth and conflicts with urban planning systems. 

The best way to protect heritage places is to ensure they continue in active use and are valued by the community. While working with heritage buildings is challenging and a bit of a risky endeavour in some respects, there are significant triple bottom-line benefits to the practice of adaptive reuse. 

When heritage buildings are no longer able to be used for their original purpose, they may be carefully converted to suit modern requirements and used in another way.

The conservation of existing building stock represents a significant opportunity to avoid the costs and emissions associated with perpetual demolition and re-construction cycles, while reducing the carbon footprint of our built environment. 

Conserving and using heritage buildings, in particular, presents not only those environmental whole-of-life performance benefits, but can deliver many other long-term social and economic benefits to communities. 

It is acknowledged that the cultural heritage around us contributes to our identities and sense of belonging. Cultural heritage, in particular, is often credited with enabling cultural connectedness. 

There are also substantial economic benefits, including the effects of cultural tourism, which boosts local and national economies. The actual historic preservation activities present economic benefits because these projects generally involve a higher-than-usual labour intensity, and therefore provide more local jobs. This is in contrast to new construction projects where the economic benefits are often less pronounced and expenditure is usually more equally split between materials and labour. 

When heritage buildings are no longer able to be used for their original purpose, they may be carefully converted to suit modern requirements and used in another way. Adaptive reuse is widely acknowledged as an effective strategy for extending the useful life of heritage buildings and makes an important contribution towards sustainable development.

Philosophically, the concepts of heritage conservation and sustainable development both centre on preserving items of value for future generations. 

In such adaptive reuse projects, the creative team needs to work with the ‘bones’ and fabric of a building, while also ensuring the somewhat intangible ‘memories’ and heritage significance are honoured. 

Taking a whole systems approach during the design phase is key to ensuring that concepts are holistic and sustainable. Heritage, sustainable development, and good design elements all need to be considered. 

Through interviews and workshops with experts in each of these fields, I have been able to distil some of these essential elements, and have characterised these as relating either to the structure, function, or behaviour of a proposed building and its users.  

Structure

To understand the physical or structural parameters of a building, it’s important for a creative team to consider its siting and orientation, acknowledge the original design intent and aesthetic styling, recognise opportunities to retain important features, realistically examine the potential for expansion, and confirm whether there are any structural issues that need to be addressed as a first measure. 

Given their construction prior to many technological advancements, heritage buildings were generally well-designed to work with the natural environment, and often already include features such as passive ventilation. 

Physical remnants of prior building use can be embraced and highlighted through design and interpretation.

Once it understands how the original building structure works, the creative team can maximise existing building efficiencies, while also gaining clarity around where the opportunities are for contemporary design innovation, and making effective and respectful interventions.

Physical remnants of prior building use can be embraced and highlighted through design and interpretation, as one expert explained to me: “The drips down the wall are from when [the building] was being built, so for us it is part of the story of how this building was made and why it’s special.” 

Function

In considering how the building can be sustainably developed, it’s important for the creative team to draw on historic and context-specific information to understand how the building has functioned in the past, and shape a well-rounded business proposition outlining how it will function in the future.

The creative team needs to detail the full spectrum of constraints, understand the surrounding context and locality, be mindful of prior purpose and historical use, and explore potential future opportunities for occupation. 

One of the experts interviewed acknowledged the importance of creating a “loose fit” building for clients because “every use that they describe will change over time, so you have to build a good design that builds in some flexibility and makes the building adaptable”.

It’s also important for creative teams to truly reflect on the heritage values of the place, and ensure that the physical, cultural, and social memories of the building are encapsulated and expressed, wherever possible. 

Good design in a heritage context is essentially about doing as little as possible, and only as much as is necessary.

Behaviour

Like all well-designed building projects, good design principles should apply when shaping how an adapted building and any future users will behave. As per the mantra of the internationally recognised best-practice framework for conserving places of cultural significance, the Burra Charter, good design in a heritage context is essentially about doing as little as possible, and only as much as is necessary. 

From considering the layout and flow of internal spaces, and the experiences of potential occupants, to designing effective lighting, and maximising opportunities to introduce vegetation and activate rooftop spaces, these behavioural elements are generally no different to those that would be considered in any building or retrofit project. 

However, one key difference in working with existing heritage buildings is that they already have a well-defined footprint. In contrast to new build projects, as one expert remarked, “it’s not just down to the biggest amount of floor space we can get on this site. It’s the other things that you give value to”. 

The emerging consensus from sustainable development, heritage, and design experts suggests that successful adaptive reuse projects are those in which the creative team has 1) fully understood the business case and future-proofed the project; 2) worked within the bottom-up constraints and top-down parameters, and established a clear vision; 3) effectively communicated and collaborated with a broad range of internal and external stakeholders; 4) acknowledged community significance and honoured the full spectrum of heritage values; and 5) creatively connected past, present, and future through heritage storytelling. 

There are lots of things to balance in adaptive reuse projects, and it’s complex and challenging to achieve holistic and successful outcomes. But there are so many environmental, economic, and social benefits, and the practice of adaptive reuse truly is a tenet of sustainable development. It’s about adding our own layers to our heritage places to bring them into the future with us. 

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