Adaptive Reuse Re-Imagines Obsolete Buildings

Last Updated: August 25, 2023

Adaptive reuse of a vacant building is a smart community choice for sustainable community development. If you aren't acquainted with this phrase, it describes finding a new purpose for a building rather than its original use, or at least the one everyone remembers. A new land use that has more market demand is chosen and developed.

adaptive reuse 2Musee d'Orsay in Paris was once a train station.

Re-purposing of buildings is a simple idea for community improvement, but often more difficult to implement because of the construction challenges that old buildings present. However, preservation of the history and often the architectural charm of the old building makes these projects exciting and valuable. In addition, reuse of buildings reduces the carbon footprint and solid waste inherent in building demolition and new construction.

If people need to be convinced, we can refer you to an online calculator for the energy cost of tearing down buildings, as compared to what is known as embedded energy found in existing buildings. See this embedded energy calculator.

That does not mean that it will be easy to sell the idea that what everyone remembers as a service station could become a restaurant. Change threatens all but the best in us.

For a general and simple discussion of the topic, see our page on recycling buildings, with the gorgeous photo of a gas station turned bar-restaurant. The difference is that the recycling idea does not necessarily mean a change of use.

But on this page, let's be more detailed and have fun learning by example what your problem vacant building can become.

The specific adaptive reuse suggestions are grouped according to the previous land use. We hope our extended list-making can inspire some creative ideas on your part as your community imagines what to do with that building that no longer seems viable in its former use.

List of Possible New Uses for Vacant Buildings

Old schools can become:

  • Apartments,
  • Condominiums,
  • Private schools,
  • Office buildings,
  • Social service buildings (sometimes with gym remaining),
    Community centers,
  • Private residences if they are one-room rural schools,
  • University classrooms, or
  • Cultural centers.

Old factories are prime for:

  • Apartments or condominiums,
  • Office buildings,
  • Restaurants,
  • Economic development incubator,
  • Skills training or even GED classes,
  • University expansions or art galleries,
  • Specialized shopping, especially featuring unique local goods or crafts
  • Gyms, archery ranges, or basketball or handball courts.

Replaced power plants have reopened as:

  • Art museums or
  • Libraries

Old gasoline stations, with gas tanks removed as required by law, could become:

  • Oil change stores,
  • Restaurants,
  • Convenience stores,
  • Auto repair garages,
  • Garden centers, or
  • Private residences, in rural areas especially.

Adaptive reuse of old mills might yield:

  • Lofts,
  • Shopping centers,
  • Small shops,
  • Restaurants, or
  • Vocational education classrooms

Old motels may resurface as:

  • Apartments,
  • Day care centers,
  • Storage units,
  • Garden centers, or
  • Flea markets.

Small former nursing homes (long-term care facilities) may become:

  • Apartments,
  • Motels or short-term rentals, especially if located with a view of a lake or an attractive landscape,
  • Storage units,
  • Antique shops or malls,
  • Offices for non-profit organizations,
  • Senior centers,
  • Rental stores
  • Imaginative "general stores" in fairly rural areas, which could be a better idea than all of the above if you can find a good entrepreneur

"Dead malls" or defunct shopping centers have possibilities as:

  • Cultural centers,
  • Apartments and condominiums,
  • Antique malls,
  • Telemarketing centers,
  • Offices,
  • Churches,
  • Community colleges,
  • Nursing homes, 
  • Parks, sometimes with conservation areas or trails incorporated, or
  • Fulfillment centers for large online retailers (although in this reuse it is possible that all or part of the mall structure would be demolished and that the main "reuse" would actually be a redevelopment of the land).
  • Urban farms or forests where retail and residential markets are weak

See also ideas in a book we recommend, Retrofitting Suburbia. More discussion can be found in the pages on shopping center renovation and shopping center redevelopment.

Adaptive reuse of old churches can produce:

  • Theatres,
  • Private residences,
  • Museums,
  • Art galleries,
  • Skateparks,
  • Gymnastic studios,
  • Music teaching studios,
  • Community centers,
  • Antique shops,
  • Nonprofit organization headquarters, or
  • Musical performance spaces, if no new congregation can be located.

Old downtown stores make great new:

  • Townhouses,
  • Offices,
  • Live-work units,
  • Day care for children or adults,
  • New church start-ups, or
  • Economic development incubators or business accelerators.

Office buildings in downtowns or campuses where demand has weakened due to pandemic-era "work at home" trends could become:

  • Apartments or condos
  • Storage facilities
  • Specialized entertainment complexes

Old train stations or depots often open again as:

  • Shopping centers,
  • Community centers,
  • Model railroading clubhouses,
  • Museums,
  • Trailheads,
  • Shops,
  • Antique stores, or
  • Transit stations.

Former libraries regain their composure as:

  • Offices,
  • Art galleries,
  • Apartments,
  • Private residences in small towns, or
  • Community centers.

Old post offices may be re-purposed as:

  • Offices,
  • Museums,
  • Libraries,
  • Stores,
  • Veterinary clinics, or
  • Homes in small towns.

Old grocery stores commonly become:

  • Flea markets,
  • Offices,
  • Clinics,
  • Ski or surf shops,
  • Restaurants,
  • Microbreweries, or
  • Libraries.

Old banks would be great as:

  • Transit stations,
  • Libraries,
  • Museums,
  • Offices,
  • Restaurants or pubs, or
  • Antique stores.

One-time mansions can be reused as:

  • Museums,
  • Art galleries,
  • Office buildings,
  • Condominiums,
  • Restaurants,
  • Antique stores,
  • Rehab centers,
  • Party facilities for rent,
  • City halls, or
  • Non-profit organization headquarters.

Unused airports and military bases are splendid:

  • Redevelopments as complete communities,
  • College campuses,
  • Golf courses,
  • Parks,
  • Picnic facilities or children's day camps utilizing the hangers,
  • Urban farms, truck farms, or urban forests
  • Local or state government buildings, or
  • Prisons.

Old colleges can graduate into:

  • Schools,
  • Museum and park complexes,
  • Redevelopment as complete communities,
  • Industrial campuses,
  • Large nonprofit organization homes, or
  • Prisons.

Abandoned barns and agricultural buildings have been reopened as:

  • Private residences,
  • Condominiums,
  • Lofts,
  • Vacation compounds for extended family,
  • Cheese factories,
  • Offices,
  • Rental space for high-end hobbies (fancy cars and such), or
  • City hall. (Just seeing if you're paying attention, but look at visitor-submitted information on one instance of an agricultural complex conversion to office use.)

Former prisons have been re-purposed as:

  • Apartments
  • Condominiums
  • College campuses
  • Parks or golf courses
  • Mixed-use developments
  • Hotels
  • Hostels
  • Distilleries
  • Offices for small non-profits
  • Co-working spaces
  • Arts facilities, ranging from performance venues to artist live-work spaces.

Under an adaptive reuse initiative, cotton gins, tobacco barns, or pole barns may become:

  • Park pavilions, or
  • With walls added or repaired, offices, artists lofts, manufacturing, flea markets.

An unused warehouse may evolve into:

  • A crossdocking facility, which is a facility where the contents of large freight trucks or conceivably rail cars are divided up into storage lockers where customers pick up orders, smaller delivery vehicles, or delivery bots
  • A house of worship
  • An urban farm, especially a hydroponic facility, or
  • A data center where banks of servers reside.

Vacant parcels and underused parks may be revitalized if you position them as:

How to Organize for an Adaptive Reuse Project

Our advice is to combine sound market research, if you have the capability or funding to hire a consultant, with the services of a good architect.

If you are on a shoestring budget or no budget, simply convene the most creative people you know, maybe get a bottle of wine, and start talking and doodling with felt-tip markers till you have an idea or three. Then ask a developer, builder, or real estate agent what they think. Keep asking, keep doodling, and keep advertising until an adaptive reuse prospect appears.

If you're on a limited or no budget, the Internet is your friend. Set up a Facebook page for your property, spread sketches and photos on Instagram, or just get on forums and blogs to spread the word. Be sure that you use a keyword that someone searching for your property would be thinking about.

Often the idea doesn't really take shape until a particular prospect sees the property. But that will be an accident; most buyers don't know they're looking for an old upholstery shop.

If you're in the public sector, obtain control of the building by purchasing an option to buy. Think through any financial incentives you are able to offer, such as tax increment financing.

Gimmicks such as attracting the media or putting a property you own up for auction online sometimes actually bear fruit, but don't pin your hopes on one strategy. Be persistent.

If you are able to make a deal to re-use an older building for a new purpose, your community could receive the benefit of a unique project, and one minimizing the waste of good building materials. Frequently old buildings have good bones and are made from more substantial materials than those currently used in construction. The selling points are many. 

For further inspiration, see a story our site visitor submitted about an innovative new city hall complex that re-used agricultural buildings.

Further Sparks for Your Creativity About Adaptive Reuse

  1. Community Development
  2.  >
  3. Redevelopment
  4.  >
  5. Adaptive Reuse

Join GOOD COMMUNITY PLUS, which provides you monthly with short features or tips about timely topics for neighborhoods, towns and cities, community organizations, and rural or small town environments. Unsubscribe any time. Give it a try.