Adaptive (Re)use: Developing an Economical, Environmental, and Social Understanding

By Grace McCracken, Design Intern

Portland architecture internship
Grace McCracken joined Hennebery Eddy as a summer design intern while working toward her Bachelor of Architecture and Landscape Architecture minor at the University of Oregon. Her intern research project focused on the adaptive reuse considerations (economical, environmental, and social).

As part of the firm’s robust internship program, our summer interns each complete a research project that they present to the firm. In this multi-part series, our 2023 cohort shares their findings; see all the internship posts here.

I discovered Hennebery Eddy a few years ago when I did a case study on the Cascades Academy of Central Oregon. As a landscape architecture minor, I fell in love with how the building interacts with the surrounding site and integrates sustainability. After looking through other projects in the Hennebery Eddy portfolio, and the range of projects on all scales, I knew that this was a firm I was interested in. While here, I’ve had the chance to grow a diversity of skills, work on projects that interest me, and step out of my comfort zone; I’m grateful to have had these opportunities.

I chose to research adaptive reuse because I knew very little about the topic and wanted to learn more — especially since this work is part of Hennebery Eddy’s historic services. My research culminated in a presentation on the benefits and barriers, trends for the future, and what we can do as designers when factors prohibit us from doing adaptive reuse.

Stark’s Block Adaptive (Portland, OR)

 

Background

Adaptive reuse is the revitalization of an existing building with a new program. It is an economical approach to designing as it saves money on demolition and materials, discourages urban sprawl, and can increase economic opportunities. Additionally, there are environmental benefits such as saving embodied carbon, reducing waste, and improving energy performance. Lastly, social benefits to adaptive reuse include maintaining the social identity of a place, increasing community interest, and improving safety. It’s clear that there are many benefits to adaptive reuse, but there are barriers to the process as well.

The most troublesome barriers include the need for seismic upgrades, especially in our unreinforced-masonry (URM) buildings here in Portland; skepticism related to unknown conditions and cost impacts; and code constraints with regard to historic landmarks and bringing the building up to code for accessibility, fire safety, and systems. Plenty of other barriers exist as well, such as other structural upgrades, hazmat abatement, and high labor cost.

The Willson Residences (Bozeman, MT)

 

Trends and Response

However, the future for adaptive reuse projects is bright. While our cities are still recovering from Covid-19, the pandemic-driven increase in remote work options has created prolonged building vacancies. In Portland, for example, downtown office vacancy rates rose to 27% (Q2 2023), and downtown retail vacancy rose to 12% (Q4 2022). Additionally, policies such as the recently passed Oregon House Bill 2984, which requires local governments to waive system development charges for commercial-to-residential conversions, foreshadow a future with more incentives for adaptive reuse projects, which can help  cities work toward meeting climate action goals.

Total Portland Office and Retail Vacancies by Quarter (Data source: Colliers)

As the opportunities for adaptive reuse persist – and in some markets, become more prevalent – we must understand the implications of our design choices, and this can be accomplished by posing questions throughout the design process. From an economic perspective, we can ask ourselves what happened on the site, how the uses around the site are evolving, and what the potential is for the future. This will help form a basis of understanding that the project can build on. On the environmental side, we can turn to data analysis to answer several questions regarding the building’s current energy performance, embodied energy, and impact on the surrounding ecology. Lastly, it’s perhaps most important to consider the social questions of building significance to the community, character-defining elements, and how to be compassionate and understanding in every stage of the process. Questions such as these should be reviewed regularly by project teams (beyond schematic design) for quality control.

 

Deconstruction

Even though we’ll likely see an increase in adaptive reuse, it may not be viable for all projects, so what are the sustainable alternatives to complete demolition? One option is deconstruction, which is the careful disassembly of a building with the purpose of reusing materials. In 2016, Portland became the first city in the U.S. to adopt a mandatory deconstruction ordinance (applies to residential, single-dwelling structures built in 1940 or earlier), and several other cities are following suit.

Although deconstruction is great for residential applications, there are several obstacles in U.S. commercial applications, including a general lack of established market for recovered building materials, added timeline to the project, and a lack of as-built documentation. Hopefully if trends continue, and cities in the U.S. begin following international precedents, we will see these barriers overcome through policies, programs, and incentives. To prepare for a future with this in mind, we can take several steps as designers to integrate future-minded construction, including keeping building systems simple and separated; using mechanical fasteners instead of adhesives; and, ideally, documenting a deconstruction plan.

 

In Conclusion

Despite the barriers, adaptive reuse is a trend that’s not likely to go away soon. As designers, it’s critical to stay up to date on legislation, question our design process, and consider the implications of current trends.

KEX Hotel (Portland, OR)

 

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