Adaptable Nature :: Adaptable Architecture

Adaptability- the ability to change or be changed to fit altered circumstances, is one of the master lessons we can learn from nature.

Chameleon and hermit crab- nature’s champions at adaptability and adaptable reuse.

Designing for adaptability and adaptable reuse is slowly being recognised as a crucial part of creating sustainable architecture and built environments. Buildings currently consume 32% of the world’s resources, and roughly one billion square feet of buildings are demolished and replaced each year. That is a considerable chuck of global CO2 emissions, and because of our currently dominant linear ‘product-waste’ system, most of this material becomes landfill.

Demolition by implosion of the Pruitt-Igoe housing development, USA.

Recycling our existing buildings and “finding opportunity in our existing built assets” is an essential and natural step towards a greener future.


According to a report by Preservation Green Lab, even a new energy efficient building can take up to 80 years to overcome the environmental impact of its own construction process. So if we can preserve an existing building successfully instead of building a new one in its place, it is probably the single biggest impact for environmental sustainability architects can achieve in a building project.

Adaptive Reuse is the process of converting an existing building for a new function, usually by renovating the interior while keeping the exterior façade and structural bones of the building intact.  The most successful examples of this are when the old and new elements contrast yet co-exist with each other, so there is both a presence of age and innovation, and a layering of history that brings a social value to the building.

These are a few of my favourite examples of this hermit crab-esque adaptive reuse, where the building ‘shell’ is reoccupied with a new function:

Adaptive re-use of a 1780’s pigsty into a showroom by FNP Architekten, Germany.

Power station converted to multipurpose art/music/TED/pecha Kucha/restaurant/bar/gallery and events space, by Cox Rayner Architects, Brisbane AUS.

Original 1903 Woodwards department store converted into private and affordable housing, supermarkets, restaurants, offices and public atrium and plaza, Henriquez Partners Architects.

Shipping container to guest house conversion by Poteet Architects, USA, 2010. Images by Chris Cooper source

Corso Karlin- conversion of a historical factory building into office space by architect Ricardo Bofill, Prague.

Dasparkhotel Berlin and TuboHotel Mexico reusing sewer pipes. Source-

Gasometer City, Vienna converting 1896 Gasometer towers into commercial, office and apartment spaces by architects ean Nouvel, Coop Himmelblau, Manfred Wedhorn, Wilhelm Holzbaue


Problems arise when the cost of renovating is significantly higher for the client than demolishing and building new. This can be the case with some buildings needing extensive restoration, and when there is no heritage value to the building so incentive for adaptive reuse can seem minimal.

‘Facadism’ occurs when the street façade is preserved for historic ‘character’ but the rest of the build is new, the dishonesty of which doesn’t sit well with many people.

Building Facadism, NZ.

Cheap unattractive existing building stock is also a big problem. With the rapid growth of most cities from the 1960’s onwards and the coinciding increased speed of construction due to new technologies, many buildings went up quickly with little design merit.

Asbestos is a nasty challenge for buildings from around this time that are now reaching the age of renovation, and other cheap materials which are not safe for preservation mean many of these buildings must be demolished or further measures taken to ensure safety.

There is also an element of fashion inherent in architecture, architects like to put their style stamp on their designs, occupants like their buildings to represent their image and the public like to see the old and unfashionable replaced with fresh and modern things in their cities as much as in their wardrobes. This means people would often prefer to see a new building rather than a restored one, especially if the building has no historical value or original aesthetic qualities and character.


I’m currently working on a renovation project, a 1960’s apartment building converted to a modern boutique hotel. The existing façade and character of the building are being significantly changed (which is probably for the best, as it truly is one of those aforementioned unattractive buildings) so the extent of adaptive reuse isn’t the maximum possible.

Adaptive reuse of 1960’s apartment building to a modern botique hotel (existing facade and gutted interior shown).

The major reason the client chose to go for this approach is purely the cost savings of keeping the existing concrete structure. As the original funtioning of an apartment building is similar to the proposed function of a hotel, with the changes involved it works out significantly cheaper than having it demolished then rebuilding.

The durability of the steel and concrete structure make this reuse possible, however the asbestos walls will require extra attention and sealing (but not removal). The building renewal is intended to rejuvenate the street corner it’s located on bringing new life, social value and increased safety to the area.


If there is no other choice than to design and build a new building, then principles of adaptability and longevity would ideally be implemented in the schematic design stage.

Flexibility- allowing easy changes in space planning and interior layout

Convertibility- allowing for changes in the use of the building, including expanding and shrinking of required quantity of space.

Durability- materials and systems that are good quality and require less maintenance/ repair/replacement

Disassembly- allowing elements to be easily deconstructed so parts can be reused or recycled.

Sex appeal- design a good looking building that people will love and want to keep around.


University of Tasmania Australia implements the woolly sweater approach in their warehouse to university studio adaption.

The ‘woolly sweater’ approach to design requires adaptability of expectations from occupants. Encouraging occupants to dress appropriately to the seasons and external weather ie. Put a sweater on if your cold rather than turning up the thermostat. This is a low-tech, zero cost user response which can drastically reduce heating and cooling demands, just requiring a little bit of willingness to be adaptable and not expecting the building to do all the work for you.


The opposite to this type of adaptability would involve buildings which could continuously adapt their systems and environmental controls in accordance with changing environmental conditions. An intelligent self regulation of its own systems and adaptability to weather change. This chameleon-esque adaptability would keep energy efficiencies high and wastage low.

Like the human skin helps regulate internal body temperature by opening and closing its pores, I can imagine a building whose walls could become an adaptable regulator of internal and external environments, rather than just a barrier between the two.

Big picture:

Humans as a species are amazing adaptors, proven by our existence today thriving in every corner of the planet. However the things we create, our products and buildings, are most often not, they are built for a specific foreseeable purpose and life span and without long term considerations. This short sightedness has led to culture of consumption and waste, and on the scale of the built environment it is crucial for this to change.

The real challenge now is expanding our view beyond the current project span and even our own life spans, acknowledging that change is inevitable, and evolving from reactionary adaptors into anticipatory adaptors.

Inspiring resources for adaptive reuse include : “finding opportunity in our vacant built assets”.