Transition towards urban sustainability through socially integrative cities in the EU and in China

Adaptive Reuse

1. Purpose(s)

The second half of the 20th century was characterized by a growing interest in “adaptive reuse”: a series of design strategies and practices for the active preservation of physical and cultural heritage, as well as the active reuse of industrial buildings and sites, often known as brownfield redevelopment (Carter 2016; Wong, 2016; Baum and Christiaanse 2012; Rabun and Kelso 2009). Equivalent terms are “retrofitting”, “refurbishment”, “conversion”, “renewal”, “adaptation” and “rehabilitation”. Introducing new functions, values and meanings into old buildings/sites is a clear example of adaptive reuse. This approach defines how an existing building/site must be transformed based on the specific conditions of its pre-existence, in order to minimize the interventions necessary to suit it to contemporary requirements and uses. All these interventions must ensure the integrity of the existing building/site and they must be recognisable and, if possible, reversible (Brooker and Stone 2004).

The growing number of design experiences in different geographical contexts shows the global diffusion of this transformation strategy in the last decades (obviously with some essential differences depending on the local conditions; see for instance SmithGroup, Detroit Future City and Mass Economics 2019). The wide range of intervention modes shows how the design outcomes can efficiently change the pre-existence of an existing building/site without damaging its historic and cultural values.

The main objective is to protect the existing building/site heritage, which preserves the historical and cultural memory of the city and its community, and to ensure the long-term sustainable uses of the building/site heritage, which are often very different from the original ones. Today, these buildings/sites still have a relevant historical, cultural, or architectural value in relation to the narratives or events associated with them.

Authorities and government agencies in several countries have fully recognized the impacts of this transformation strategy and promoted the practices of adaptive reuse of existing buildings/sites as a pragmatic tool in their urban programmes, with the aims of promoting the recycling use of land resources and fostering the sustainable development and the liveability of their communities.

Key Words: refurbishment, renewal, adaptation, urban regeneration, heritage conservation

2. Relevance and Impact

Urban transformation has a relevant impact on the daily life of the inhabitants and the users of the area. The adaptive reuse tool is mostly significant to the aspects of socially integrative cities relating to preserving of heritage, collecting the consensus and an active participation of the community in the transformation of parts of the city, strengthening a sense of community and fostering a sense of place.

Due to pandemic limitations, the tool was not tested in a new case study during the project, but the description of the tool quotes growing number of project experiences in different contexts in recent decades.

Governments and National Agencies in different countries started to take advantage of adaptive reuse of existing building stock, as a key operational tool in their urban agenda, as soon as they recognise the great benefits in terms of economic and social-environmental impact (see for instance Commonwealth of Australia 2004).

Compared to the development of new areas or indiscriminate operations to replace historical fabric, but also of warehouses and factories abandoned, sensitive practices of adaptive reuse of the existing buildings prove to be a very profitable way to reduce urban sprawl and preserve the territory. These interventions also help to the protection, conservation and reactivation of the national heritage. It is becoming increasingly evident that the quality of physical space and the relationship between the design of the built environment and lifestyles in our cities are fundamental to the creation of the necessary conditions for the “well-being” of urban communities.

In addition, the aesthetic refinement, that often characterizes all these projects, contributes to mark the exceptionality of places, reshape and promote new images of old spaces (especially those that are abandoned by the radical process of spatial relocation of manufacturing industries outside urban centres), and renew local identities. As a result, new real estate investments, such as shopping malls, housing complexes and recreational facilities, grown in or around these areas, enhancing urban areas, that are not always central, in an economic and touristic sense.

Finally, adaptive reuse strategies re-elaborate the historical knowledge of the place and give value to the physical traces of the past, maintaining the cultural continuity with the urban community. Indeed, all these interventions pay attention to the relationship with local communities around them, in order to enhance a sense of belonging, ensure an active participation of the inhabitants to preserve the place, support activities that respond to the real needs of the place and foster a vibrant social and territorial alliance.

3. Strenghts

The adaptive reuse of existing building stock is an essential tool to respond to growing demands for environmental well-being and quality of urban life.

In environmental terms, the main benefits of recycling buildings are linked to energy savings, more efficient use of land and raw materials, lower carbon dioxide production and greenhouse emissions compared to completely new structures, short and incremental realisation.

In social terms, the benefits for the community are mainly connected to the protection of heritage and its adaptation in accessible and functional spaces. Interventions of adaptive reuse in consolidated residential areas often offer new public spaces, infrastructure and sharing facilities to the community.

Generally, these places occupy central or strategic positions in an economic and tourist sense. This provides benefits in terms of accessibility, visibility, proximity to large existing urban infrastructure, availability of public transport services, connection of new functions with surrounding neighbourhoods. The large and flexible dimension of the structures ensures the capacity to accommodate spaces tailored to the new mixed functional programmes.

Finally, strategies of adaptive reuse minimize needed resources and budget. The incremental logic of the transformation process can be convenient from a financial point of view (Robiglio 2017). The existing heritage can be gradually revitalized without large amounts of funding in the initial phase of place-making, through bottom-up and temporary activities such as community events, cultural and artistic festivals, local markets and so on. The active participation of the local community in the realization of some first interventions, which normally developers have to undertake with even relevant costs, can trigger the transformation process in this way.

4. Weaknesses

Obsolete building stock need to be adapted to new functional and socio-economic requirements as well as to existing building regulations.

In particular, accessibility and safety are two potential critical elements in the process of transformation. From a technical point of view, interventions of adaptive reuse must pay attention to some performance indicators for the renovation of the existing building stock, such as fire resistance, structural strength, sound and thermal insulation, and so on. Often it is necessary to replace the materials most degraded or the electrical and plumbing systems. A safe and high-performance reuse can therefore prove expensive, so a detailed analysis of the real condition of the structure can be useful. An accurate design strategy can facilitate the construction process, thus avoiding unexpected issues and costs (Giebeler et al. 2009).

In addition, in the case of abandoned industrial sites, practices of adaptive reuse can be get more difficult by the (real or potential) presence of pollutant or contaminant substance. Sometimes former production activities have contaminated the soils or the water table of the site. Environmental pollution makes unsafe the development of new functions and the decontamination cost can be higher than the possible return on initial investment.

Finally, the construction of public support is a key factor for a successful transformation of the existing physical heritage. The involvement of the community in the decision-making process or in the use of the new facilities is essential to ensure that the intervention meets the new demands of authenticity and urbanity expressed by the population. Since urban transformation has an important impact on the daily life of the inhabitants and the users of the area, projects of adaptive reuse can help to collect the consensus of the community in the transformation of other parts of the city.

5. Good practice examples

Lycée Hôtelier de Lille, France: the adaptive reuse of the Fives-Cail-Babcock steelworks

The Lycée Hôtelier de Lille (map) built on the area of the former Fives-Cail-Babcock (FCB) steelworks reveals how a contemporary intervention of adaptive reuse can transform former production sites, renovate their activities, and redefine whole urban neighbourhoods (Figure 1). The transformation is the first step in a much larger regeneration strategy drawn up in 2005 by l’AUC. For a decade, the industrial structures remained abandoned in the core of the working-class neighbourhood that had developed all around the plant. In 2011 regeneration of part of the factory was designed to the British studio Caruso St. John after it won the competition for the new Lycée Hôtelier. The project maintains and enhances the main spatial elements of the factory, such as the morphology of its volumes, its uniform architectural language and monumental scale. The project adopted a selective strategy: some of the old buildings were to be preserved and restored in their entirety while others were to be replaced by new architectures that maintained the same morphology of the original ones (see Repellino 2019). Administrative and didactic areas, shops, and restaurants are located in the recovered or rebuilt structures. Three new architectures are inserted in the free area: student residences, housing for the staff, and the gymnasium also open to local residents. All the structures are linked based on former connections; this generates a porous layout with courtyards, paths, and open spaces. This adaptive reuse intervention gives the factory a dimension opens to the public; although the buildings preserve the old, formal features of the complex, they can host new different uses.

Shougang Park, Beijing, China: the adaptive reuse of the Shougang steel plant

Shougang Park, a former steel manufacturing site, locates in Shijingshan District of Beijing (map), at the west end of Chang’an Avenue, shows how renovation can transform a traditional industrial site into a new urban area. Covering a total area of 8.63 km2, it is divided into the northern and southern districts by the Chang’an Avenue. A decision about reduction and relocation of production was made because of the 2008 Olympic Games and it was totally shut down in 2010. Now, a new opportunity of redevelopment is coming forth with the 2022 Winter Olympics. The latest City Master Plan of Beijing (2016-2035) defines it as a High-end Industrial Comprehensive Service Area of New Shougang (HICSANS), which highlights the preservation and renovation of industrial heritage with focus on the northern district. Approach of “Closed and Transformed” was applied to the northern district. According to the Detailed Plan of HICSAN - The Northern District” that was officially approved in November 2017, the overall plan of renovation includes five sections: Winter Olympics Square, Industrial Heritage Park, Associated Public Service, Urban Weave Innovation Works, and Landscape Park of Shijingshan. The proposal would inject new vitality into the Shougang Park. The renovation mainly targets some typical buildings, including Xishi Silo, Powder-processing Workshop, Gas Workshop, Coal Workshop, Coal Station, No.3 Star Furnace and Xiuchi Pond, Frit Workshop, and Coking Workshop. Today, the previous ‘steel base’ is transforming to a new green ecological area, and the traditional industrial park is becoming a new ‘magnetic field’ to attract high-end industries, as a new land-mark of urban revival of Beijing (Figure 2).

6. References

Baum, Martina, and Kees Christiaanse. 2012. City as Loft: Adaptive Reuse as a Resource for Sustainable Urban Development. Zurich: gta Verlag.

Brooker, Graeme, and Sally Stone. 2004. Re-Readings: Interior Architecture and the Design Principles of Remodelling Existing Buildings. London: RIBA Enterprises.

Carter, Donald K. 2016. Remaking Post-Industrial Cities: Lessons from North America and Europe. Routledge.

Commonwealth of Australia. 2004. “Adaptive Reuse: Preserving our past, building our future.” Accessed April 30, 2020.

Giebeler, Georg, Fisch, Rainer, Krause, Harald, Musso, Florian, Petzinka, Karl-Heinz, and Alexander Rudolphi. 2009. Refurbishment Manual: Maintenance, Conversions, Extensions. Basel: Birkhäuser.

Rabun, J. Stanley, and Richard Kelso. 2009. Building Evaluation for Adaptive Reuse and Preservation. Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons.

Robiglio, Matteo. 2017. RE-USA: 20 American Stories of Adaptive Reuse, a Toolkit for Post-industrial Cities. Berlin: Jovis Verlag GmbH.

Repellino, Maria Paola. 2019. “On the Intensity of Surfaces: Lycée Hôtelier de Lille by Caruso St John Architects.” SHIJIE JIANZHU (World Architecture) 344: 114–117.

SmithGroup, Detroit Future City and Mass Economics. 2019. “Detroit Industrial Adaptive Reuse Initiative: Trends and Case Studies from North America and Western Europe.” Accessed April 30, 2020.

Wong, Liliane. 2016. Adaptive Reuse: Extending the Lives of Buildings. Basel: Birkhäuser.

7. Author(s) of the article

Jian LIU (THSA), Yanhui LEI (THSA), Maria Paola Repellino (POLITO)