About Historic Preservation

Historic Preservation and Adaptive Reuse

Old buildings often outlive their original purposes. Adaptive Reuse is a process for adapting old buildings for new uses while retaining their historic features. An old factory may become an apartment building. A rundown church may find new life as a restaurant. Or in the case of The Gaylord Building, an old warehouse and office building can become a museum, restaurant and focal point for redevelopment of adjoining historic resources.

In the pursuit of sustainable development, communities have much to gain from adaptively reusing historic buildings. Bypassing the wasteful process of demolition and reconstruction is a major environmental benefit. This, combined with energy savings and the social advantage of recycling a valued heritage place make adaptive reuse of historic buildings an essential component of sustainable development.

What is adaptive reuse?

Recycling has become second nature to modern communities as we strive for environmental sustainability. Aiming to reduce, reuse and recycle waste, we find new life in everything from bottles and boxes to clothes, vehicles and buildings. Adaptive reuse is a process that changes a disused or ineffective item into a new item that can be used for a different purpose.

The adaptive reuse of a historic building should have minimal impact on the heritage significance of the building and its setting. Developers should gain an understanding of why the building has heritage status, and then pursue development that is sympathetic to the building to give it a new purpose. Adaptive reuse is self-defeating if it fails to protect the building’s heritage values.

The most successfully developed heritage adaptive reuse projects are those that respect and retain the building’s heritage significance and add a contemporary layer that provides value for the future. Sometimes, adaptive reuse is the only way that the building’s fabric will be properly cared for, revealed or interpreted, while making better use of the building itself. When buildings can no longer function in their original use, a new use through adaptation may be the only way to preserve their heritage significance.

Benefits of Adaptive Reuse


Adaptive reuse of buildings has a major role to play in the sustainable development. When adaptive reuse involves historic buildings, environmental benefits are more significant, as these buildings offer so much to the landscape, identity and amenity of the communities they belong to.

One of the main environmental benefits of reusing buildings is the retention of the original building’s “embodied energy”. That is, the energy consumed by all of the processes associated with the production of a building, from the acquisition of natural resources to product delivery, including mining, manufacturing of materials and equipment, transport and administrative functions. By reusing buildings, their embodied energy is retained, making the project much more environmentally sustainable than entirely new construction.

New buildings have much higher embodied energy costs than buildings that are adaptively reused. In 2001, new building accounted for about 40 percent of annual energy and raw materials consumption, 25 percent of wood harvest, 16 percent of fresh water supplies, 44 percent of landfill, 45 percent of carbon dioxide production and up to half of the total greenhouse emissions from industrialized countries.


Keeping and reusing historic buildings has long-term benefits for the communities that value them. When done well, adaptive reuse can restore and maintain the historic significance of a building and help to ensure its survival. Rather than falling into disrepair through neglect or being rendered unrecognizable, historic buildings that are sympathetically recycled can continue to be used and appreciated.

Increasingly, communities, governments and developers are seeking ways to reduce the environmental, social and economic costs of continued urban development and expansion. We are realizing that the quality and design of the built environment in our towns and cities are vital to our standard of living and our impact upon natural resources.

In the context of local government planning, historic preservation has merged with more general environmental and quality-of-life concerns in recent years. Communities increasingly recognize that future generations will benefit from the protection of certain places and areas, including historic places. Our lifestyle is enhanced not just from the retention of historic buildings, but also from their adaptation into accessible and useable places. Policy makers and developers that recognize and promote the benefits of adaptive reuse of historic buildings, then, will be contributing to the livability and sustainability of their communities.


There are several financial savings and returns to be made from adaptive reuse of historic buildings. A number of government tax-credit programs can help overcome any added heritage related costs and project risks. Embodied energy savings from not demolishing a building will only increase with the predicted rise of energy costs in the future.

While there is no definitive research on the market appeal of reused historic buildings, they have anecdotally been popular because of their originality and historic authenticity.

Promoting innovation

The adaptation of historic buildings presents a genuine challenge to architects and designers to find innovative solutions. As development pressures increase in our cities, more historic buildings are being reused, producing some excellent examples of creative designs that retain historic significance.

Excerpted from Adaptive Reuse: Preserving our past, building our future. 2004. Commonwealth of Australia, Department of Environment and Heritage.