Reduce, reuse, reuse. It’s a phrase we’re all used to hearing. Some products and materials are commonly recycled with a little thought, such as beverage containers in states with a mortgage law or plastic shopping bags returned to the container in the supermarket. Metal, glass and cardboard are other examples. Now think bigger. Think urban. Imagine that entire buildings are transformed into a whole new space.
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This practice is known as adaptive recycling, and it is gaining momentum in the face of ever-increasing environmental challenges. Through adaptive recycling, old buildings are given new life, and the process brings a wide range of benefits to society, the inhabitants and the environment.
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Better for society
Recycling buildings that already take up space in the city prevents the building from being demolished, which helps maintain the community’s roots. Plus, existing real estate is cheaper than new construction, giving community members more affordable options in their own neighborhood.
Existing buildings already have the surrounding infrastructure. Therefore, the new owner has fewer obstacles in terms of parking and street access. An established location also often means surrounding residential and commercial buildings that offer a finished community. Creating an urban center with accessible services means people are more likely to walk or cycle, leaving cars and their toxic emissions off the road.
Better for the environment
Built-in carbon is a massive problem for our environment. Every time we pick up new materials, we release carbon into the air through extraction, processing, manufacturing, packaging and transportation. This is before the material is even used in construction. The more we can recycle what is already on site, the less impact the building has on the environment. In addition, recycling materials significantly reduces the amount of waste associated with demolishing buildings.
In addition, it helps to avoid new construction keeping the soil intact, as there is no need to clear plants and trees or otherwise prepare the soil. As we know, plants absorb carbon dioxide and release the oxygen we breathe. They also bind the carbon deep in the soil that is released when we break ground on new construction.
Ava Alltmont, AIA, LEED AP, Associate and New Orleans Studio Director at Cushing Terrell, a multidisciplinary design studio, recently compiled a paper on the topic entitled “Land (Re) Use and Climate Change: Breathing New Life into Old Buildings.” She explained that the concept is more applicable than ever with stores shuddering and storefronts standing empty due to the pandemic and the economic downturn.
“When buildings are adapted for recycling, this can benefit both businesses and the communities involved by reducing environmental impacts, improving the quality of life and maintaining a sense of place,” Alltmont said.
Fortunately, many examples of this strategy are seen in neighborhoods across the country. You have probably seen an old building being converted into a venue, offbeat bar, remarkable restaurant, antique shopping mall or loft apartment. Alltmont says adaptive recycling can be referred to as “renovation, modernization, historic preservation, infrastructure recycling, and additions, to name a few. And within those categories, there are even more variants of adaptive recycling.”
More than just recycling materials
Adaptive recycling is not without challenges. In most cases, the building is decades or even centuries old. Systems need to be updated and it can be complicated to work within the existing framework. But the benefits of a good location combined with the significantly lower CO2 footprint make adaptive recycling an effort that pays off in fresh air, lower pollution, cultural rejuvenation and waste reduction.
With the global spirit of the times aimed at recognizing the effects of climate change, adaptive recycling should receive the same attention as other forms of recycling. With a post-pandemic focus on wellness, the increase in opportunities to work from home, a limited amount of available land to build on and empty buildings covering the landscape, this is a perfect time for individuals and businesses to invest in the idea.
A movement of community
In summary, the idea of adaptive recycling can be added to more than just recycling building materials. It is a movement that cements the history and culture of an area, binds communities together, leads away from urban sprawl (and the traffic that comes with it) and provides more affordable real estate opportunities.
“If we look back at the cyclical nature of recycling, it is easy to see that the company is imperative in adaptive recycling,” Alltmont concluded. “If it is good for the environment, the quality of life and a sense of community to choose to transform an existing building, then it will attract more talent, residents and visitors to the city and thus improve the local economy. It’s a case of reducing, reusing, reusing – and revitalizing. “
Via ModernCities and Ava Alltmont from Cushing Terrell
Photos via Cushing Terrell