3 major benefits of adaptive reuse in real estate

The creative repurposing of older, underutilised buildings has major environmental, social and economic benefits

September 01, 2023

Source: Tonsley Innovation District / Renewal SA

Given the construction and operation of buildings accounts for 38% of global carbon emissions, the property industry has a major role to play in preventing the further deterioration of our climate.

With the International Energy Agency estimating that global building stocks will double in floor area by 2050, and that existing buildings will make up 40% of the 2050 stock, the most obvious way to move the needle is through adaptive reuse. This refers to the process of taking an existing structure, including spaces and objects, and adapting it for new purposes. Ultimately, it extends the lifespan of an existing building.

Various adaptive reuse projects globally have seen carbon emissions savings of between 40% and 70% when compared new-builds. In Australia, the Quay Quarter Towers in Sydney achieved a savings of 8,250 tons of greenhouse gas emissions (two years’ worth of the buildings’ operational emissions) and about $130 million by retaining two thirds of the original building’s structure.

Circulating materials

Adaptive reuse embodies the circular economy principles of eliminating waste and pollution through circulating products and materials.

The UK Green Building defines circular economy as: ‘an economic model that aims to retain the value of circulating resources, products, parts, and materials. It aims to create innovative business models that promote long life, maximise reuse, encourage refurbishment and boost the use of renewable materials.’

As well as reducing the amount of pollution created, adaptive reuse preserves the time and resources that would be lost in the process of demolishing and redeveloping new buildings, along with the social, cultural and heritage value of those buildings.

Projects should address the multiple needs of a community through creating spaces for collaboration (for example, spaces for meetings, or flexible working); for placemaking (such as a venue for cultural events, exhibitions, or other events to be held); and for giving back to the community (for example, a café for small local business, or a small shop to support local and Indigenous businesses).

Below are three benefits of adaptive reuse:

1. Reducing embodied carbon

Embodied carbon is the carbon footprint of a material, a measurement of embodied energy and carbon for a building material or construction project. Unlike operational carbon emissions, embodied energy and carbon cannot be reversed. Embodied carbon is a top-of-the-agenda consideration for government and the property industry, not least because it makes up 30% of the total emissions from the building sector, and 11% of the annual global greenhouse gas emissions.

JLL's Manchester office

In the UK, a new fit-out for JLL’s Manchester office was able to achieve a 38% upfront embodied carbon saving compared to a standard office fit-out through:

  • Reusing items from the previous office
  • Acquiring desk chairs from another organisation’s offices
  • Reusing base-built mechanical, electrical, and plumbing equipment where possible (23% embodied carbon saving due to needing 35 fewer fan coil units)
  • Having an open-plan office design which reduced the need for internal partitions, reaping 17% carbon savings
  • Using an acoustic soffit (the underside of an eave) spray, which replaced the need for a suspended ceiling
  • Using products with recycled content (for example, carpets, ceiling features, and marble-like surfaces made from recycled yoghurt pots)
2. Promoting sustainable innovation

Adaptive reuse challenges architects and designers to be creative in the design of multi-functional spaces while respecting and preserving the historical characteristics of a building. The increase of hybrid working styles has called for spaces to be more adaptable so that real estate can serve the needs of organisations and communities for longer.

In Tasmania, the Hedberg is the product of an adaptive reuse strategy that fused the historic 1873 Theatre Royal with the heritage-listed 1926 Hedberg Garage to create a performing arts destination. A theatre, car showroom and mechanics warehouse were transformed into a world-class performance venue that is the new home for the Conservatorium of Music, and provides creative workshop laboratories alongside professional music and performance hubs.

3. Preserving the cultural, heritage and historical value of older buildings

Skilful adaptive reuse can restore and uphold a building's historical significance, allowing it to deliver long-term economic benefits to a community while safeguarding its social value. While the social value of historical and heritage buildings may be difficult to translate in financial terms, the community’s sense of placemaking is tied to such spaces.

One example is LocHal, in the Dutch city of Tilburg, which stands as a multi-functional cultural destination for people to gather. The iconic Dutch Railway’s 1932 building was transformed to create the facility, which provides studying and learning spaces including a café and reading room, bleacher-style seating for performances and presentations, exhibition spaces and small office spaces.

Source: Tonsley Innovation District / Renewal SA

Another example, in Adelaide, Australia, is the Tonsley Innovation District, which is an adaptable, multi-functional precinct adapted from the Mitsubishi Motors Main Assembly building. The adaptive reuse of the building saved approximately 90,000 tons of carbon emissions.

Adaptive reuse is undoubtedly the way forward for a sustainable, and character-rich built environment, and it has been reassuring to see increasing interest from property owners.

If you would like advice on how to embed adaptive use principles into your real estate decisions, contact JLL’s sustainability consulting team here.