Adaptive Reuse and Cultural Heritage

Melissa Abraham, senior communications specialist at the J. Paul Getty Trust, posted an article, “What Do You Mean, ‘Sustainability and Cultural Heritage?,” in which she discusses sustainable development as it relates to the preservation of cultural resources. Sustainable development, according to Ms. Abraham, is “meeting the world’s current needs by using what we already have, so that we’re not compromising the resources of future generations.” She rightly notes that this forward-looking, long-term heritage conservation strategy has innumerable benefits to our environmental, economic, and social well-being. Ms. Abraham cites an example from Nevada City, California, a town which has capitalized on its rich history by incorporating many of its Gold Rush-era structures into local business opportunities. Sustainably conserved, the historic district of Nevada City is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places and considered to be among the best-preserved towns of the West. (Check out this brochure for a walking tour of Nevada City.)

The Turbine Hall at London’s Tate Modern, formerly the Bankside Power Station

An important phrase to consider when discussing cultural conservation (or cultural sustainability) is “adaptive reuse,” the process that changes a disused or ineffective item into a new item that can be used for a different purpose. I think adaptive reuse is the concept alluded to but never mentioned in Ms. Abraham’s article. In this burgeoning interdisciplinary field–a combination of heritage preservation, architecture, and community development–adaptive reuse is a key to preserving a structure while propping it up for new use. The preservation of historic buildings and other cultural resources provides a window into how our built environment had been structured in the past as well as gives a vision of where they fit into our future. Where a building is no long able to function with its original purpose, a readapted use may be the only way to preserve its heritage significance [1]. In all successful cases of adaptive reuse, there is minimal impact on the heritage significance of the resource and its setting. Adaptive reuse is self-defeating if it fails to protect the building’s heritage value–its appearance; its social, cultural, or historic meaning; or its fundamental nature.

Adaptive reuse circumvents the process of demolition and reconstruction, reducing waste and thus allowing for the reincorporation of old materials without wasting time and money or compromising environmental conditions. In this way, the original building retains its “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. Water, light, and heat systems can be upgraded, too. Socially, adaptive reuse can restore and maintain the heritage significance of a building and help to ensure its survival, rather than falling into disrepair through neglect. Communities increasingly recognize that future generations will benefit from the protection of cultural heritage resources. Our communal appreciation and self-recognition is enriched not only by the preservation of heritage buildings, but also from their adaptation into accessible and useable public places. Economically, adaptive reuse creates commercially viable investment assets for owners and users. Historic buildings can be “recycled” to suit multiple uses, such as offices, hospitals, businesses, and residences.  Adaptive reuse ensures that previously defunct properties can once again become livable and sustainable.

So, who is interested in adaptive reuse? Builders, developers, architects, community groups, heritage councils, individuals, and all levels of government.

The Getty Conservation Institute will host a free panel discussion, “Sustainability and Heritage in a World of Change,” on Tuesday, January 11, 2011 at 7:00PM.  More information about the panelists and the Institute can be found here.


[1] Australian Government, Department of the Environment and Heritage, 2004.  Adaptive reuse: preserving our past, building our future.

This entry was posted in adaptive reuse, cultural conservation, cultural sustainability, culture, heritage, historic preservation, National Historic Landmark, Tate Modern. Bookmark the permalink.

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