In the Brooklyn neighborhood of Gowanus, a 100-year-old metal foundry has been transformed into a state-of-the-art performing arts center. Dating back to 1901, the old warehouse had a quintessentially industrial, albeit worn-down, frame and precious longleaf pine timber from forests that were wiped in the building boom of the 1900s. Now, the neighborhood has one less blighted building and one more cultural destination.
This kind of adaptive reuse, whereby an old building is converted for a new purpose, has been in vogue for decades. 2021 even kicked off with one of the largest adaptive reuse projects ever built, when the James Farley Post Office building in midtown Manhattan was transformed into the Moynihan Train Hall. Later in the year, in Beloit, Wisconsin, a coal-burning power plant from 1908 was reborn as a vibrant college campus. In Houston, an old Sears department store was transformed into an innovation hub. And in St Louis, the former headquarters of the Post-Dispatch became a residential building with 51 loft units.
Now, we find ourselves at the cusp of a new year, with a climate crisis that has accelerated the drive for adaptive reuse. Buildings generate almost 40% of annual global CO2 emissions, and 11% of that comes from materials and construction. The most sustainable buildings are the ones that already exist. So, what if we made a collective decision to not build a single new building next year and instead, focused on reusing what we already have? A year-long building moratorium is a radical approach, and it comes with obvious shortcomings, but looking at our existing building stock could help with more than just the climate. In the last three years, nearly 800 old buildings have been repurposed into apartments. And as the pandemic continues to shutter properties across the country, more buildings like offices, hotels, and malls could enter the draw.
In Gowanus, the new theater was designed by Co Adaptive, a local architecture practice that specializes in retrofitting existing buildings to be more energy-efficient. When the architects came in in 2017, the roof was leaking, the HVAC systems were outdated, and the windows had been boarded up. “Somebody else would’ve seen it as a pile of garbage and razed it to the ground,” says Ruth Mandl, who co-founded Co Adaptive in 2011 with her husband Bobby Johnston. “Our role as architects is an exercise of showing what’s already there and celebrating that.”
The architects restored and repaired the existing structure, reinstalled the skylight above the main space, wrapped the outer walls with insulation panels, and exposed a brick layer on the inside. They removed a floor to double the ceiling height and reused the floor joists as railing posts. “Anything we didn’t use was picked up by local wood salvager to make flooring and paneling,” says Mandl.
A boon to the environment
At scale, reusing buildings could have enormous environmental repercussions. “There is this common phrase that the greenest building is the one that’s never built, and that’s incredibly true,” says Marta Schantz, the senior vice president for the Urban Land Institute’s Greenprint Center for Building Performance, which makes a business case for reducing carbon emissions in buildings.
It’s worth noting that, according to Schantz, only 1% of building projects completed every year can be categorized as new construction. The impact of that 1%, however, can have devastating consequences on the environment. “Globally, we are on track to build a new New York City every month for the next 40 years,” says Schantz.
A building’s carbon footprint can be divided into two categories. First: embodied carbon emissions (this includes any CO₂ created during the manufacturing of materials, the transport of those materials, and the construction itself). Then: operational carbon emissions (what it takes to run the building once it’s built). The latter can be reduced with energy upgrades and renewable energy. The former is irreversible. “If we didn’t build a single new building in 2022, we’d avoid all of that embodied carbon,” says Schantz.
The financial reality
A building hiatus, even for one year, could help drastically lower the building industry’s carbon footprint. But that doesn’t come cheap. In Atlanta, an old Sears building was turned into a mixed-use hub called Ponce City Market in 2014. While it’s now home to 90 businesses, it cost $250 million to develop. Back in Manhattan, the Moynihan Train Hall in Manhattan cost a whopping $1.6 billion. This isn’t to say that every adaptive reuse project will break the bank, but many come with a slew of architectural and engineering considerations, plus historical preservation requirements if it’s landmarked.
Carl Dranoff has made a career out of adaptive reuse projects. In the ’80s, the Philadelphia developer used federal historic tax credits to finance the conversion of over 20 underused factories and warehouses into loft apartments like The Chocolate Works, Wireworks, and the Touraine. As the cofounder of Historic Landmarks for Living — then the largest rehabilitator of historic buildings in the country — he helped spark the city’s adaptive reuse boom. Then, he says, “adaptive reuse fell into an abyss.”
For Dranoff, adaptive reuse requires what he calls “economic rationale.” It comes with hefty investments, and it has to make good business sense. This is where zoning changes, tax breaks, and various other state and federal incentives come into play. Historic tax credits, in particular, played a big role in Dranoff’s career, but for buildings to be listed on the National Register, they have to be at least 50 years old — and not every 50-year old building is worthy of landmark status. “If you didn’t have [those credits], reusing an old building would cost more than building a new building.”
A massive housing shortage
The U.S has been mired in a housing crisis for decades. Meanwhile, the government alone owns an estimated 45,000 underused or underutilized buildings across the country. Many of these are prime candidates to be turned into housing stock.
Over the years, a lot of housing has been created through adaptive reuse projects. In Philadelphia, almost 2,000 buildings have been converted into apartments from the 1950s through the 2010s. That’s about 11,200 apartments in hotels, office buildings, and disused factories.
Elsewhere, a growing number of cities, including Los Angeles and Phoenix, have been passing ordinances that make it easier to turn old buildings into housing. In 1999, the City of Los Angeles adopted the Adaptive Reuse Ordinance, which cleared the way for property owners to convert the upper floors of historic Downtown buildings into condos and apartments. Between 1999 and 2008, Downtown L.A gained about 7,300 housing units from long-term vacant buildings (compared to 4,300 units in the 30 years before the ordinance was passed). This year, the LA City Council approved a citywide expansion of the ordinance, as long as it’s only used for below-market-rate housing. More than 4,300 apartment conversions are scheduled to begin in 2022.
According to a recent paper by the Central City Association of Los Angeles, if Los Angeles converted between 5% and 10% of its 155,000,000 square feet of office space to housing, it could generate between 8,000 and 16,000 new homes. Considering half a million affordable housing units were needed to meet demand in 2019, that would barely make a dent. But the paper notes that “thousands more units of housing could come online if hotels, retail spaces, obsolete industrial buildings, and parking structures also qualified for reuse,” the study says.
With the ongoing shift to work-from-home, cities with vacant office spaces could make for excellent contenders, too. As of October 2021, Dallas topped the charts with a 28% office vacancy rate; Manhattan was at 9%. (Incidentally, One Wall Street – a 56-story, Art Deco landmark in Lower Manhattan — is now being transformed into a 566-unit condominium building, making it the largest office to residential conversion in the history of New York City.)
According to Dranoff, however, offices can be tricky to convert into housing because oftentimes, their floorplates are too big and many don’t have operable windows. To be suitable for housing, a building needs to have the right combination of natural light, airflow, operable windows, and volume to be turned into housing. “If you wanted to build a lot of housing stock in a hurry, you would take buildings that are 60 feet wide that could be converted into a corridor down the middle and housing on both sides,” he says. And as the pandemic continues to upend travel, particularly the business kind, he says some hotels may become obsolete and could be “great candidates.”
How successful these conversions are will depend on architectural prowess, but also how much cash developers (and cities) are willing to pour into them. Starting next year, Philadelphia’s property tax abatement will change in a way that will incentivize developers to choose adaptive reuse over new residential construction. (Though in Dranoff’s opinion, if a building was a poor candidate for adaptive reuse before, the tax break isn’t going to make that big of a difference.) In other good news for adaptive reuse proponents, he says many buildings that were built during the housing boom of the ’70s can now officially be listed as historic. “Now it’s 2022, whole new neighborhoods can qualify,” he says.
Even so, Dranoff says that no amount of adaptive reuse projects would be enough to meet our current demand for homes. “Housing is our greatest shortfall today as a country; we wouldn’t be able to produce enough housing because we’d be limited by supply,” he says. Adaptive reuse projects may not be enough to meet the country’s housing demand but they can help us make a dent in the climate crisis.
There is no stopping new buildings in 2022, but if we have to build anew, then let us build to last, so that in 50 years, developers will look around and find creative ways to adapt what we are building today.