Uncanny conversions: the good, the bad and the dirty in adaptive reuse

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Principal | Urban Designer

Have you ever been inside a newly-refurbished building and wondered about its glorious history? Perhaps it was a new hotel converted from a historic train station, or a commercial headquarter that began as a vast warehouse first built at the height of the industrial revolution. Adaptive reuse has us looking at old buildings with new, in growing awe.

In the 1960s, civic leaders throughout North America struggled "with ways to inject new life into their downtowns, which were decaying as urban sprawl attracted people to suburbs." While cities demolished many historical heritage buildings in the process, those that remained standing still continued to struggle with vacancies and neglect. As we move towards a more sustainable future, adaptive reuse of industrial heritage buildings is one of the most critical tasks the building sector faces today.

A lot goes into transforming a heritage building into a new mixed-use environment. Typically, the real estate sector assesses the existing structure and economic viability for the highest or best use of an industrial heritage building to qualify for adaptive reuse potentials. Moreover, architects would consider the heritage characteristics for appropriate vernacular styles, while engineers would examine the structural integrity and energy performance of the building.

Many adaptive-reuse projects also involve controversial rezoning and local ordinance variances for the typical planning considerations such as density, parking and building codes. According to the International Committee for Architecture and Museum techniques (ICOM), "Adaptive reuse can become controversial as there is sometimes a blurred line between renovation, façadism and adaptive reuse. It can be regarded as a compromise between historic preservation and demolition. [Therefore] the adaptive reuse of a historic building should have minimal impact on the heritage significance of the building and its setting. Developers should gain an understanding of why the building has heritage status, and then pursue development that is sympathetic to the building to give it a new purpose. Adaptive reuse is self-defeating if it fails to protect the building's heritage values."

Examples of adaptive reuse

The realm of urban planning and urban design should also consider the implications of its cultural, social and environmental sustainability. Given the highly public nature of adaptive reuse developments, these implications are often subjected to public opinions and historical scrutiny. Of all the projects I have come across, three uncanny conversions come to mind that relates to these three areas of sustainability:

  1. Cultural - "The Good Sanctuary" refers to an over 150-year-old Catholic convent that was converted into a cluster of restaurants and nightspots
  2. Social – "The Bad Stigma" refers to the repurposing of former prisons into cultural hubs and asylum center
  3. Environmental – "The Dirty Laundry" refers to abandoned textile mills on contaminated lands that were redeveloped into mixed-use environments

The Good Sanctuary – Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus Middle Education School (CHIJMES), Singapore

CHIJMES started as a Catholic convent in 1852, serving as an orphanage and refuge known as the Home for Abandoned Babies, and later becoming the Saint Nicholas Girls' School in 1933. It underwent the Japanese Occupation in the late 1940s, post-war reconstruction of some of its buildings, and eventually a $100 million redevelopment by the Urban Redevelopment Authority, winning a Merit Award in the UNESCO Asia Pacific Heritage Awards for Cultural Heritage Conservation in 2002. Even in the early stages of development, stakeholders were fully aware of the sensitivity of its cultural nature and heritage. They were careful to not invite tenants who wouldn't complement or "sync with the concepts [they] wanted to do."

While, CHIJMES remains mostly successful as themed retail, food and beverage destination, an incident several years ago, concerning an 'Escape Chapel Party' that was supposed to have taken place at CHIJMES Hall, illustrates that careful balancing act. According to the following excerpt by the then archbishop, "The promotions for the event were offensive. Young girls dressed in provocative adaptations of a nun's habit distributed promotional flyers in public spaces. Advertising material featured images of similarly dressed girls and promised 'a sacrilegious night of partying' and the presence of 'nuns'. These were an affront to Catholics. The fact that the party was to be held in what was once the CHIJ chapel and on Holy Saturday compounded the disrespect not just to our faith but to the many women religious who have devoted their lives to God and who have contributed significantly to Singapore with their schools, homes and work with the poor. Happily, the organizers cancelled the party. They apologized, and we have forgiven them for this whole episode."

However, whether it is a sacrilegious incident or an insensitive marketing idea, the framework for an adaptive reuse building must ensure that its long-term operation and tenancy use shall remain culturally appropriate to the history of its former use. People may be forgiving, but we only get one chance at writing our own history.

The Bad Stigma – Bijlmerbajes Penitentiary Institution, Amsterdam

In the Netherlands, crime rates have been so low that many prisons are shut down due to the lack of prisoners. The low incarceration rate is primarily a result of deregulation of drug laws, a focus on rehabilitation and an electronic ankle monitor system. According to its national statistics, the number of inmates fell from 20,463 in 2006 to 10,102 in 2016, which is equal to about 59 prisoners per 100,000 population. This resulted in the closure of many prisons across the country and for the Bijlmerbajes Penitentiary Institution in Amsterdam. It also meant a challenging transition for the remaining inmates, who were patient-prisoners with mental illness staying in the Penitentiary Psychiatric Center, and the long-serving employees who now had to find new work. Although the closing of the prison is sad, it is the logical move according to the prison director, "The buildings are old. It is an inefficient and expensive building that is no longer of our time."

On the upside, this shuttered facility has found "redemption" and a brand new meaning through adaptive reuse. Eventually, the buildings will be demolished for new housing. In the meantime, the City of Amsterdam has converted them into a creative hub and a local asylum centre. The first use as a creative hub, also called Lola Lik, provides 100,000 square feet of space to start-ups, artists, and offices. The second use as an asylum center is an example of the "Amsterdam Approach", which advocates for programs that encourage the inclusion of refugees and integration with the rest of the population. As Lola Lik's Communications Manager Cathelijn de Reece puts it, "a cultural hub next to a refugee center in a time of fear and division, Amsterdam offers a space for inspiration and connection."

Personally, juxtaposing the social stereotypes for prisoners, artists and asylum seekers is fascinating, but a successful choice. "Lik", which is prison slang for "lick of paint", has inspired global art foundation Favela Painting to collaborate with some refugees to turn the grey prison walls into colorful murals, thereby adding their own "liks" to the hub. Other examples include a coffee shop by The Refugee Company, a kickboxing school, a space for food start-ups called Startup Kitchen, and a Solar World Cinema that will host film screenings in the old prison courtyard. The transformation of this formerly forbidding building into a vibrant mixed-use environment is representative of a socially adaptive reuse framework.

The Dirty Laundry - Old textile mills on contaminated lands, Massachusetts

Some of my favorite walkable heritage cities are in the state of Massachusetts, which are full of mill towns that once led the country into the industrial era with its pioneering water-powered textile mills. Over the centuries, as the textile industry moved south, the state's textile mills have gone dormant, resulting in shuttered companies and the eyesore of multiple abandoned buildings and vacant homes. These usually encouraged vandalism and illegal dumping. Adding to this widespread environmental degradation are the mill properties that were often contaminated with chemicals that leach into the water tables. To quote an abstract, "These industrial buildings serve an important role in urban life as the former engines of production and economic centers of communities, but when their doors are shut, they are left to decay. They are not preserved because they lack the architectural, historical and symbolic significance that society requires to retain them."

The good news is there has been a widespread institutionalization for textile mill adaptive reuse in the form of redevelopment frameworks and/or guidelines, given the trending redevelopment of these properties that links economic vitality with environmental protection. A textile mill redevelopment guide provides developers with a background in textile mill effluents (typically considered "toxic" by most Environmental Protection Acts) and a framework that requires an environmental site assessment by an ecological consultant trained and experienced in environmental investigation and decontamination or cleanup process. It has also encourage leaders to establish a community-based approach where community members have a direct role in determining how the impacted land can be cleaned up and redeveloped to best facilitate future development plans within the community.

Perhaps the epitome of an abandoned building on a contaminated site would be to convert toxicity into livability. Today, Massachusetts is home to many charming apartments and condos that were successfully converted from former mill buildings. Standard features of these developments are homes with "16-foot timber ceilings, 12-foot windows and an oversized gourmet kitchen", buildings with mixed-use environments, and an urban character that integrates with the historical architecture of the old textile mills.

To sum it up

These uniquely different cases have made me reflect on our ever-increasing "throw-away society" and re(think) adaptive reuse as a sustainable way of transforming obsolete facilities into a culturally, socially and environmentally responsible alternative to demolition and replacement. Should dying shopping malls and other greyfield properties (economically obsolescent, outdated, failing) simply make room for new condos to ease the housing crisis, or should they be "reborn" as something else or much more? Do you know of any other uncanny conversions in your city? Comment below.

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