Adaptive Reuse Design Tips for Residential Developers

With the current volatility in the construction and real estate markets and the new administration’s ambitious commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, now is a good time to revisit adaptive reuse. Not only is adaptive reuse a more sustainable way of building, but breathing new life into existing and unused structures can meet the changing needs of urban areas, revitalize neighborhoods, and help address the nation’s housing shortage crisis.

Data published by the World Green Building Council indicates that building and construction account for 39 percent of the world’s carbon emissions. Eleven percent of that comes from embodied carbon, the total amount of energy and emissions involved in producing a built structure. If we want to achieve the council’s goal of a 40 percent reduction in embodied carbon emissions by 2030, the AEC communities must consider all ideas and innovations that put decarbonization at the forefront and increase sustainability.  

Working with existing structures and repurposing them for housing requires fewer materials and energy to build, decreasing their overall embodied energy and potentially saving construction costs. Our post-pandemic environment will see considerable repurposing opportunities in office, retail, and strip-mall buildings. We’re in the middle of a great shift in urban and suburban living. Adaptive reuse is a means of preserving the past’s heritage while designing for the future. But what makes a good adaptive reuse project? Where to start and what are the benefits and challenges? We’ve identified the main types of adaptive reuse projects and the most important elements to consider in your review and planning. 

Types of Adaptive Reuse Projects

You may have heard of them by other names – infill, conversions, or restorations – but adaptive reuse projects all have a similar purpose: to take an existing older structure and transform it into something new and useful. There are a few different types of adaptive reuse designations, and it’s important to recognize the attributes of each when evaluating the feasibility of a site.

Historical Preservation

Historical preservation is the process of modernizing and bringing an older structure up to code while conserving its original architectural style and purpose. 


Complete renovation occurs when the original structure does not require architectural conservation and/or will be used differently from its original purpose. Most adaptive reuse projects fall under this category as both the exterior and interior require substantial architectural design and engineering improvements to accommodate the new occupants and uses. 


A kind of middle ground between preservationists and developers, facades strike a compromise that conserves a building’s street-facing architecture while updating the interior for new uses.


This approach restores and integrates cultural landmarks into the design and site plan with new construction taking place around it. The landmark anchors the development and bridges the site’s heritage with the new surrounding development. 

Understanding Costs in Adaptive Reuse

Not every structure is a good candidate for revitalization, and it’s important to know the costs involved to avoid a construction money pit. Your feasibility study should include your architect and engineering firms, an environmental remediation firm for brownfield sites, and possibly a historic preservation consultant. Some structures may be too decayed and damaged to save. An experienced AEC team can help determine if renovation or demolition and rebuild is the better course of action. Assume you will need to replace all HVAC, plumbing, and electrical to bring them up to code. When repurposing a structure for residential use, expect significant floor plan or layout changes like multiple bathrooms, kitchens, and laundry spaces. It all adds up quickly.

On the other side, depending on the location and structural integrity of the building, a developer could enjoy cost savings in an adaptive reuse project. Lumber inventory is at critical levels with pricing at all-time highs, and other building materials are still experiencing pandemic-related impacts. The ability to use existing framing and other building components could amount to cost savings, though this could vary widely per project. If eligible, developers may also benefit from tax savings in adaptive reuse projects, the most significant of which is the historic rehabilitation tax credit that allows for a 20 percent credit over five years. 

Zoning and Land Use

Zoning obstacles – along with capital investment reluctance – have been one of the main challenges to adaptive reuse projects. Cities must overhaul antiquated zoning to adapt to changing needs, including urban infill and addressing the missing middle. At the very least, workarounds to stimulate and encourage meaningful development and revitalization can be implemented quickly. Zoning overlays and form-based codes can help developers obtain approvals faster and reduce their costs to make adaptive reuse projects more attractive. 

Los Angeles and Nashville were early adopters of adaptive reuse ordinances and encouraged the redevelopment of commercial and industrial buildings for residential use. These ordinances don’t require the developer to obtain a land-use variance, which can speed up the project life cycle considerably. Adaptive reuse that encourages economic development like mixed-used projects with residential, office, and retail space are attractive to city planners. 

Built in 1828, the Arcade Providence is the oldest indoor mall in the US. Once destined for closure, the historic building received a second life after being converted inside to 48 micro-loft apartments on the upper two floors and a mix of small business commercial including restaurants, cafes, bars and retail on the main level. Photo:

Expect Challenges

Taking the plunge in an adaptive reuse project is much like approaching urban infill development. No matter how much you plan for anticipated challenges, expect the unexpected. You never know what you’ll find behind the walls (cue the construction horror stories). 

Some of the most common considerations when evaluating a potential adaptive reuse site and building include:


Thoroughly review all renovations required to bring the structure up to code to ensure a safe and healthy living environment. Many older buildings include hazardous materials like asbestos, lead paint, and high VOC paints and sealants that must be removed and replaced. Environmental cleanup may also be necessary.


Proper access for people with disabilities must be included in any adaptive reuse project. Creating access points for emergency and delivery vehicles is also required.

Building Code Uniformity

Uniform building codes establish minimum requirements for safety, and unfortunately, nothing similar exists for adaptive reuse construction. Some of the first states to implement adaptive reuse building codes are Massachusetts, Maryland, and New Jersey. More regions should adopt a similar system to tackle these unique projects with varying needs.

Purpose Driven Adaptive Reuse Design

Adaptive reuse can help reinvigorate urban and suburban areas with changing neighborhoods and economies. Developers should evaluate existing structures before renovation work begins to inventory what can be reclaimed and reused, in addition to their location, character, and contribution to the area’s cultural heritage. 

If you’re evaluating a site or considering an adaptive reuse project, we are here to help. Contact us to schedule a consultation. 

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