“Adaptive reuse refers to the process of reusing an old site or building for a purpose other than that which it was built or designed for,” according to The American Institute of Architects. In other words, it’s keeping the shell of an old building and redesigning the inside to meet changing needs. When adapting downtown buildings, creating mixed-use spaces is common, with retail and office space on bottom floors and residential space up top.
Very often, adaptive reuse projects include historic preservation requirements that limit what can be changed in the building. These requirements, the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Rehabilitation, are tied to the historic preservation tax credits used to finance many projects. The standards state that, “A property shall be used for its historic purpose or be placed in a new use that requires minimal change to the defining characteristics of the building and its site and environment.”
Opinions vary on what makes something a “defining characteristic,” which means pursuing an adaptive reuse project can involve a little bit of negotiation between an owner, architect, historic consultant, and the National Park Service (which oversees the tax credits). Generally, things that can’t be changed include exterior details (which can be repaired or replaced with exact replicas) and interior details, such as tin ceilings, that mark the building as belonging to a particular time and place and are worth preserving.
At one of our projects, the Brooks House in Brattleboro, Vermont, many of the interior “defining characteristics” of the 1870s hotel had been removed during a renovation in the 1970s that turned it into apartments; most of the remaining interior elements were destroyed in a 2011 fire. The exterior, however, remained largely intact.
The owners of the building wanted to improve the access to the retail spaces on the first floor of the building, make room for a community college and offices on the second floor, and enlarge the apartments on the third and fourth floors. To accommodate these new uses in the building, we needed to completely remove most of the interior partition walls and construct an addition on the rear of the building. The exterior needed to be preserved to meet historic preservation requirements, and the addition needed to complement, not compete with, the existing building.
When the building is complete, it will have another new life, and will continue to contribute to the vibrant downtown in which it sits. That is the power of adaptive reuse: making something new out of something old. We preserve history to create space for the future.