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Architecture and Adaptive Reuse // Angel Llanes


Ljubljana City Museum

Photo: OFIS arhitekti

Abstract: Architecture consists of three major project types, however one, adaptive reuse, should become a more common project type because it has the ability to retain regionalist characteristics while integrating modern accommodations.

Audience: All current and future architects and building designers.

"Architecture and Adaptive Reuse"

“Architecture should speak of its time and place, but yearn for timelessness.”

Frank Gehry

In the modern era there are three general types of architectural projects; new construction, restoration, and rejuvenation. It would seem to me that the most challenging yet the most rewarding types of projects tend to be rejuvenation, better known as adaptive reuse. Yet in the current design world, this is not a typical approach to a project mainly due to time constraints, difficulty of design approach, and namely, overall investment.

Throughout our secondary education as architecture students, we are commonly prompted with new construction project variants. This is common, especially in earlier years, as an easy approach to learning the process of design development while providing creative license to students. This approach does not account for many factors of existing site conditions and usually foregoes realistic design considerations.


In the real world, the prime type of real estate for any designer would be a clear plot of land; a clean slate if you will. New construction projects are commonly considered perfect design opportunities because they have very little limitations on typology and design approach. There is no doubt that most of the starchitects revered around the world are hailed for their design methods in new construction.


Realistically however, budgets, owners, codes, environments, and site relationships, all play an important role in an architectural project, but existing structures are typically overlooked or removed in favor of new construction.

Restoration is defined as “the action of returning something to a former owner, place, or condition.” In architecture, the general understanding of restoration work is that it is long and arduous, and not typically approached by most firms commonly due to this tedious, lengthy process.

Restoration of 860-880 Lakeshore Drive Chicago, IL by Krueck & Sexton Architects

Photo by: Hagen Stier

Ultimately, restoration work is achieved by specific focused organizations that specialize in historical vernacular architecture. Not all restoration projects are lengthy though, they tend to depend on the age and condition of the building. Projects such as the 860 – 880 Lake Shore Drive originally designed by Mies van der Rohe was renovated in 2009 by Krueck + Sexton Architects.

Restoration work can be rather fulfilling depending on the designer in question; however, it is not often that an architect would describe a yearning to restore buildings to their former glory.


As designers, we are influenced and challenged in school to assess the modern vernacular design approach and push for progress and innovation. The world is constantly changing with technology and construction approaches which is why schools consistently encourage students to critically examine the current modus operandi. We are expected to challenge the established typologies in search for newer design concepts and methods.


Which leads us to what should be considered a common typological design approach, architectural rejuvenation, aptly named Adaptive Reuse. There is a very distinct difference however, between adaptive reuse and restoration.

Adaptive reuse has been an architectural typology for ages, yet it is not the typical project approach when presented with the opportunity. It goes back as far as ancient Roman and Greek structures. The Parthenon, one of the most famous Greek temples on the acropolis in Athens, was once a temple to the goddess Athena. After all pagan temples were closed in the mid 5th century, it was later converted into a christian church in the mid 6th century. It was converted again into a mosque in the 15th century after the Ottoman empire invaded Greece.

Hagia Sophia Istanbul, Turkey

Photo: Getty Images

Similarly, Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, formerly Constantinople, was also converted from a Byzantine church to a mosque over centuries of reconstruction and redevelopment after fires and earthquakes. The conversion of a structure’s original intended purpose into a new function is ultimately the goal of adaptive reuse. In the process, modern additions and construction techniques take place to reinforce and clean up aesthetics and structure within the shell of an existing site.

Kranspoor Amsterdam, Netherlands

Photo: OTH Architecten

It has become more common in many cities across the United States, but many times, old structures are reduced to rubble in favor of a clear plot to redesign a new structure. In many urban environments this begins to make sense such as in New York City, whose population has consistently been rising over the past 10 years. In this instance it is necessary to demolish smaller structures in favor of much larger capacity ones.


Many cities though, have large industrial districts that are becoming hot spots for new residential areas, creating new spaces for people without the strong need for a severe increase in capacity. Such as this project in Amsterdam, Netherlands where an existing abandoned shipyard was re-purposed into a commercial office building. These existing zones are not commonplace nor is there a need for increased capacity in places such as Kansas.

Our studio was presented a strong challenge with the re-envisioning of a 1930’s kit house in Volland, Kansas. As with many projects, the majority of our studio first stepped onto the site in Volland and immediately dreamt of a new structure embracing the open landscape. We looked past the ageing structures in front of us in a conditioned mindset conceiving of design from a blank slate.


Our design education encouraged us to focus on the prospect of new construction when realistically, it was not necessary. When asked to identify the houses which rested quietly lining the road, a bit of shock and disappointment set in as the reality of the existing environment dawned on our studio. That moment, however, began slowly shifting the mindset, beginning our descent into what would become a project more valuable than any new structure could possibly have hoped to achieve.

Volland kit house

Photo: Karl Ndieli

Early proposals that included artist studio space with the program

Glass brick addition proposal

We pressed forward reducing the design to a simple free plan with a condensed core nestled towards the northern corner within the house.  As the details began to settle, the realization of the design far outweighed what new construction would have introduced to the site. The relationship of the local vernacular architecture embraced Volland beyond what a newly design structure would.


Yet it had the flare of a modernized interior that challenged the preconceived ideas of accommodation spaces in rural Kansas. The project that has been most challenging but, in the end, far more rewarding with its resulting design came to be this adaptive reuse project.

Current project renderings

Images: Ted Arendes and Brock Traffas

The question remains - Why adaptive reuse?


A design approach considered to be standard by a firm with new construction is typically consistent within that project type, however the challenges associated with adaptive reuse are unique to every project. It becomes a relationship between history and the present; the integration of modern design within historical architecture is no easy task as any designer knows.


We can admire present-day construction and imbue existing historical districts with modernized living conditions to recognize the richness of the history in these places while inhabiting them. The character of these existing districts creates a sense of unique individuality to places, while the integration of new construction within them provides substantially higher quality living and working environments. This is design as it should be approached, recognizing history and embracing the future.


The hurdles faced by designers is generally incomprehensible from an outsider’s viewpoint, but within the profession, there is still a mindset that needs to be enlightened. It would become a future that no longer envisioned brand new structures as the sole pinnacle of architectural design. The field would embrace the challenge, and fully comprehend the benefits, of rejuvenating structures through adaptive reuse.


The challenge is to encourage architects and designers to undertake the obstacles of these projects by looking at them less as a time and money commitments and more as a rare opportunities to create something uniquely beautiful.

“As an architect you design for the present, with an awareness of the past, for a future which is essentially unknown.”

Norman Foster

Written by Angel Llanes

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