Unlocking Sustainability And Circularity - The Adaptive Reuse Revolution in the Built Environment


In the relentless pursuit of a sustainable future, the built world is undergoing a paradigm shift, shifting its gaze from erecting new green structures to a more nuanced strategy - ‘adaptive reuse’. This transformative approach embraces the potential lying dormant in existing buildings and precincts, leveraging their historical and architectural character to accelerate progress toward climate and materials net-zero objectives.

Note: At circulist, we talk of climate and materials net zero as we strongly believe in these 3 pillars: to electrify, decarbonise, and dematerialise everything is the ultimate outcome. 

In this post, we will delve into the complexities and systemic challenges hindering the sustainability drive, and explore how adaptive reuse emerges as a compelling solution. Moreover, we will examine the proactive measures property owners and tenants are taking to reshape procurement initiatives, operating models, and workplace designs to usher in a new era of sustainable built environments.

Complexities and Problems in the Built Environment

The built environment faces a myriad of systemic challenges that have impeded the realization of sustainable and circular outcomes. One glaring issue is the incessant focus on constructing new green buildings and precincts. For example in Australia, new buildings are only 2% of the total built world footprint everyday. Meaning we have the existing 98% of buildings to focus on. 

While these projects are undoubtedly valuable, they often come at a considerable environmental cost. The embodied energy and resources required to create new structures, coupled with the massive carbon footprint of construction processes, cast a shadow over the overall sustainability of such endeavors.

Moreover, the sheer volume of existing buildings worldwide presents an untapped resource that is often overlooked. These structures, whether historic landmarks or nondescript office buildings, embody embedded energy and materials that, if repurposed intelligently, can significantly reduce the environmental impact associated with new construction.

Another challenge lies in the prevalent linear approach to building life cycles. The traditional model involves constructing, using, and eventually demolishing structures, creating massive amounts of waste and contributing to the depletion of resources. Adaptive reuse, on the other hand, represents a departure from this linear model, promoting a circular economy by extending the lifespan of existing structures. Great reference article co-authored by Professor Sara Wilkinson and Nick Gonios titled “Circular Economy and Construction Costs” is worth the read. 

The Adaptive Reuse Advantage

Adaptive reuse entails repurposing existing structures for different functions while retaining their original form or incorporating sustainable design principles. The inherent advantages of this approach lie in its ability to mitigate the environmental impact associated with new construction, reduce waste, and breathe new life into underutilized spaces.

One of the key benefits of adaptive reuse is the preservation of cultural and architectural heritage. Renovating historic structures not only retains a sense of place but also honors the embodied energy and craftsmanship invested in these buildings. This preservation ethos aligns with sustainable practices, fostering a deeper connection between the past and the present.

Source: MBH Architects Shares 3 Examples of Incredible Adaptive Reuse post.

From an economic standpoint, adaptive reuse often proves to be a more cost-effective alternative to new construction. Existing buildings are already equipped with infrastructure, reducing the need for extensive new developments. This not only minimizes costs for property owners but also facilitates a faster transition towards sustainable outcomes.

Solutions: Shaping a Sustainable Future Through Adaptive Reuse

1. Procurement Initiatives

Property owners are increasingly recognizing the potential of adaptive reuse and are adjusting their procurement strategies accordingly. This involves a shift in mindset, moving away from the reflex to demolish and rebuild towards a more holistic understanding of the existing assets. Sustainability is becoming a key criterion in the selection of properties, with a focus on structures that offer adaptability and potential for repurposing.

In addition, forward-thinking property developers are collaborating with architects and engineers who specialize in adaptive reuse. This collaboration ensures that renovation projects not only meet modern sustainability standards but also preserve the unique character of the original structures.

Sydney’s Quay Quarter Tower takes out top global award and The Quay Quarter Tower, designed by Danish practice 3xN and executive architect BVN, has been named 2023’s Best Tall Building Worldwide.  In addition, GXN’s 3XN sustainability and circularity team produced this comprehensive paper titled “Building a Circular Future” which is presented as a positive business case for adaptive reuse. 

2. Operating Models

Tenants, especially companies with a commitment to sustainability, are playing a pivotal role in driving the adaptive reuse revolution. As organizations increasingly prioritize environmental and social responsibility, they are seeking out spaces that align with their values. This shift is prompting property owners to reassess their operating models, incorporating sustainable practices into the management and maintenance of existing structures.

Green certifications, such as LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design), are becoming integral to the evaluation of buildings. Property owners are investing in energy-efficient technologies, renewable energy sources, and water conservation measures to enhance the sustainability profile of their assets.  In addition and as part of tackling Scope 3 emissions, the plethora of products used across the interiors of buildings as another area of opportunity and in our opinion, one of the greatest opportunities to reimagine the operating model by having landlords and tenants shift away from owning products to subscribing to them (XaaS) and placing responsibility of the service back in the hands of the product brands.

3. Workplace Design

The adaptive reuse trend is also reshaping workplace design. Companies are realizing that sustainable, well-designed spaces contribute not only to the environment but also to employee well-being and productivity. Adaptive reuse allows for the creation of unique, character-rich work environments that foster a sense of identity and community.

Flexible and open floor plans are becoming more prevalent, accommodating the diverse needs of modern workforces. Additionally, the integration of green spaces, natural light, and energy-efficient systems enhances the overall quality of the workplace, creating environments that are both aesthetically pleasing and environmentally responsible.

BVN’s ‘Elastic Work’ Workplace Strategy execution is an excellent example of adaptive reuse applied across a company’s flexible workplace environments. 

Leading By Example! Google's Transformed It’s Real Estate Strategy with Adaptive Reuse

Google has indeed shifted its real estate strategy towards adaptive reuse, this aligns with a broader trend in the industry toward sustainable and environmentally conscious development practices.

In the context of Google's sustainability targets, the company has been vocal about its commitment to environmental responsibility. Some key aspects of Google's sustainability efforts includes:

Renewable Energy

Google has set ambitious goals for powering its operations with renewable energy. The company has been investing heavily in renewable energy projects, including solar and wind farms, to ensure that its global operations are carbon-neutral.

Carbon Footprint Reduction

Google has a goal to operate completely carbon-free 24/7 by 2030. This involves not only using renewable energy but also implementing energy-efficient technologies and strategies to reduce overall energy consumption.

Circular Economy Initiatives

The concept of adaptive reuse aligns with circular economy principles, where the focus is on extending the lifespan of existing resources and minimizing waste. If Google is actively engaged in adaptive reuse, it suggests a commitment to reducing the environmental impact of its real estate operations.

LEED Certification and Sustainable Building Practices

Google has been known to pursue Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification for its buildings. LEED is a globally recognized green building certification system, and achieving certification involves meeting strict criteria for sustainable site development, water savings, energy efficiency, materials selection, and indoor environmental quality.

Innovation in Design and Construction

Google often incorporates innovative design and construction practices to enhance the sustainability of its buildings. This includes considerations for natural lighting, green spaces, and environmentally friendly materials.

Google's Transformation of the Spruce Goose Hangar

Dezeen’s article on Google’s historic airplane hangar in Los Angeles. 

Google's acquisition and transformation of the historic Spruce Goose Hangar in Playa Vista, California, serves as a prime example of a company leveraging adaptive reuse through strategic procurement. The company recognized the unique potential of the massive hangar, originally built by Howard Hughes, and opted to repurpose it rather than engage in new construction. Google's procurement strategy involved careful consideration of the historical and architectural significance of the structure, aligning with their commitment to sustainability.

Google's operating model for the Spruce Goose Hangar focused on sustainable practices and energy efficiency. The company invested in state-of-the-art technologies for heating, cooling, and lighting, reducing the environmental impact of the massive space. Additionally, the interior layout was designed to be flexible, accommodating various functions and allowing for future adaptability.

The workspace design at the Spruce Goose Hangar reflects Google's commitment to creating a collaborative and innovative environment. The vast interior was transformed into an open and dynamic workspace, featuring communal areas, flexible workstations, and green spaces. This design not only enhances the employee experience but also maximizes the use of the existing structure in a sustainable manner.

The synergy between Google's adaptive reuse strategy and its sustainability targets lies in the recognition that repurposing existing structures can significantly reduce the environmental impact associated with new construction. By choosing adaptive reuse, Google may be able to preserve the embodied energy and materials in existing buildings, contributing to both environmental and economic sustainability.

Adaptive Reuse Must Be At The Center When Reimagining The Existing Built World.

The adaptive reuse revolution in the built environment represents a significant leap towards achieving sustainability and circularity. By unlocking the latent potential in existing structures, property owners and tenants are not only reducing the environmental impact associated with construction but also preserving cultural heritage and fostering economic efficiency. The shift towards adaptive reuse is a testament to the industry's evolving understanding of sustainability—one that goes beyond the allure of constructing new green buildings to embrace the transformative power of repurposing existing spaces.

As property owners and tenants continue to shape procurement initiatives, operating models, and workplace designs around the principles of adaptive reuse, we can anticipate a future where the built environment seamlessly integrates with the natural world, creating spaces that are not just sustainable but also deeply rooted in history and culture. This journey towards a more sustainable future is not without its challenges, but the adaptive reuse revolution stands as a beacon, guiding the built world towards a more resilient and regenerative tomorrow.

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