In most circumstances, the term “adaptive re-use” conjures up images of aging structures, and clients desperate to find something, anything, for which they can use these facilities. When clients are in a growth mode, however, buildings can be designed from the outset to enable future re-purposing, an approach that gives the term “adaptive re-use” an entirely different context. This requires a firm grasp of the design issues surrounding the variety of facilities types envisioned by the Owner, and also necessitates sound knowledge of modern building technologies and their inherent capacity for adaptability.

Planning for future adaptive re-use begins in the present. Among the first stages in facilities development is the Strategic Plan (Figure 1), which takes the client’s vision and mission, and describes what will be needed to implement these within a specified time horizon. For example, a church will assess how its mission and vision will be enacted through its ministries, worship, family life programs, educational activities, etc. An educational establishment will define its curriculum, student life program, extracurricular activities, and so forth. Each client will describe a set of strategic parameters to guide its operations for a period of time, and state specific goals that are derived from the strategic plan.

One of the strategic plan’s outcomes is a statement of Facilities Goals—a generalized and prioritized outline of needs in the built environment, a roadmap that henceforth guides the decisions which impact adaptive re-use strategies. 


Figure 1


In order to reach these facilities goals, the Facilities Plan (or “master plan”) is developed. Its first stage is “programming,” in which specific project requirements are enumerated; a simplified way of looking at this would be that an amount of space is assigned to each of the facilities goals previously determined. The second stage is “planning,” during which the actual physical layout of spaces or buildings is defined, including phasing. During creation of this Facilities Plan, adaptive re-use strategies are first brought into play in a significant way. 

Specific strategies are affected by three principal factors. First, the anticipated rate of change shapes the degree of permanence and the amount invested in the principal building components. Rapid growth, for example, drives decision-making toward minimal investment in non-structural components and also pushes toward initial concentration on facilities of secondary profile (e.g., religious congregations would focus on fellowship and education space). An example is St. Laurence Catholic Church near Houston, Texas, which is located in a high growth corridor. Our firm designed this church’s first phase building (Figure 2), which was used initially for worship. When, five years later, we designed the new, large, permanent Church, the initial project became a family life activity center, requiring minimal modifications to HVAC, lighting, and acoustical systems. 


Figure 2


Second, specific programmed needs also influence strategy. At St. Laurence, the first-phase structure was planned for a limited seating capacity which spurred consensus for the next phase, the permanent Church. At the same time, long term program needs for the initial structure dictated the need to function well for many years for fellowship activities.  

In a more modest growth scenario, this Phase One building might have been designed with an environment more appropriate to worship, enabling it to function longer for that purpose. The Seabrook United Methodist Church near Galveston, Texas (Figure 3) is an example of such an approach. Despite a more ecclesiastical appearance, it is a flexible seating facility with a flat floor and a kitchen—just like St. Laurence. 



Figure 3


Finally, existing physical conditions also impact strategy. Where a “greenfield” site is involved, no particular constraints hindered the flexibility of the first stage plan. However, utilities, drainage, and parking infrastructure are all sized for the ultimate master plan.

A different example is St. Martin’s Lutheran Church in suburban Houston (Figure 4). Its present 350 seat worship space (contained inside the white concrete part of the structure visible on the left side of the photo) will be quickly re-cast as a multi-purpose gymnasium in a family life center when the permanent worship building is added a few years hence. The ceiling and some of the partitions will be removed; lighting fixtures will be changed out; and HVAC ductwork modified. 


Figure 4


The examples above highlight one of the common approaches our firm takes when designing “Phase One” projects. All facilities built for a start-up or relocated institution may be convertible. Only primary functional spaces are designed with more or less permanent infrastructure. 

But this “Phase One” approach is not the only possibility; the second common approach is one used in our work with commercial buildings—the “shell and core.” This approach involves construction of the infrastructure as a discrete component, leaving the building’s infill as a separate, changeable element. This approach is driven by the different rates of depreciation in the basic building components (Figure 5). By creating a “core” structure comprised of building elements that hold their value, other components can be designed according to their desired lifespans. Figure 5 illustrates the decline in value of the basic building systems over a fifty year time horizon. 


Figure 5


Thus, a building design is created around the “basics” (structure, building enclosure, vertical circulation, building services, and major mechanical and electrical equipment), and adds “plug and play” demountable or movable elements to finish out space in its “final” form. This approach is well-suited especially for education, meeting, and administration buildings. 

At St. John XXIII High School in Katy, Texas (Figure 6), the original campus featured a large two-story structure that was planned with modular interior space layouts, allowing quick re-purposing as future phases came on line. Additionally, mechanical and electrical infrastructure was roughed out in science lab spaces, and the rooms were incrementally finished as enrollment expanded. This “shell and core” provided an optimal combination of economy, flexibility, and functionality.


Figure 6


Adaptive re-use, then, is a concept which can be applied to planning and design at any stage in the life cycle of an organization’s facilities. While its common context involves dealing with aged structures in need of re-purposing, it also offers a sensible strategy to plan in the earliest stages for long-term cost-effectiveness for a variety of building uses.