Reuse, Reimagine, Extend, Transform: A Reflection on Adaptive Reuse

It was only in the 1980s, after the wholesale urban renewal of the 1970s, that conservation groups helped establish a default of preserving buildings of historic value. Today, in the 2020s, a new default is emerging to keep and give new life to a wider range of existing buildings, however, this decade’s focus is on preserving embodied energy rather than narrowly defined historic character.

At KPF we believe that keeping and reusing an existing building, with all the cultural and sustainability benefits this includes, can be as creative and interesting in scope and ambition as any new build. Design responses to historic buildings range from complete preservation to the often more relevant creative re-invention and inventive juxtapositions of old and new. With all adaptive reuse projects architects are faced with a similar choice, between “light touch” upgrades or transformational projects that treat the historic carbon emissions embodied in existing building materials as a resource to be manipulated and given new relevance through architectural expression.

John Bushell, Design Principal

John has long been an advocate for architectural reuse, exploring the potential for sustainable development that improves the wider city.

To be authentic and successful, design interventions must be informed by rigorous analysis of the performance of the building’s fabric. The architect must consider the successes and failures of how a building has been used and understand its urban context. Becoming the most informed and understanding mentor, knowing whether the building has been constructed on firm foundations with a healthy framework, or is flawed and weak in some areas, is part of the skill. Understanding the construction approach of the building’s era is equally informative, as there are great variations in codes, material integrity, and diligence of assembly across the decades. It is only with this depth of knowledge that many of the challenges of reuse can be met.

The pioneering transformation of Tour First, originally built in 1970, increased floor area by 12%, improved energy performance, and better integrated the tower into its urban context.
LEFT: Designed in 1972, Southbank Tower, London, was transformed by KPF into a mixed-use development, incorporating residential use and adding 11 storeys to the original tower. RIGHT: The Landmark Mandarin Oriental, is the transformation of an office block into one of the world’s best hotels.

At KPF, we learnt much from projects completed in the early 2000s. The pioneering transformation of Tour First, Paris, increased floor area by 12%, improved energy performance, and better integrated the tower into its urban context. At Southbank Tower, London, an office tower designed by Richard Seifert was redeveloped as a mixed-use development. The tower was converted into residential use and an additional 11 stories were added to the over-engineered original structure. In Hong Kong, an office tower was transformed into The Landmark Mandarin Oriental, known as one of the world’s best hotels.

One great shock from this work is seeing first-hand the fragility and inbuilt need for replacement of systems and components of relatively new buildings that have barely passed being “teenagers”. This is salutary and puts great focus on how we are designing buildings now. How long will each component and assembly last? How easy is it to repair or renew? We need to hold ourselves to a much higher standard, while really learning from the simple and effective detailing of the best buildings from different centuries.

Another challenge is to avoid a carbon logic that drives towards just the sort of building we would otherwise see as in need of replacement or improvement! We need to move away from tight-fit, short-life buildings to flexible developments and new builds that anticipate future change and allow for upgrades and adaptation, as opposed to demolition and replacement.

At Hudson Commons, New York, KPF has stitched old and new together, maintaining urban continuity while adding density and new amenities.
LEFT: Completed in 1996, The World Bank Headquarters, Washington D.C., set a precedent for how we should develop our cites, integrating transformation and new construction to provide a timeless workplace. RIGHT: One Madison Avenue, New York, updates an existing, mid-century podium and adds an elegant new tower.

Keeping, adding to, and transforming existing buildings allows for a new hopeful and ambitious carbon logic based on the idea of guardianship to emerge. We have found this retention and addition to be relevant in many cities: from The World Bank Headquarters in Washington, D.C., in 1998; through to recent projects in New York such as Hudson Commons and One Madison Avenue; and in London, where Panorama St Paul’s and 99 City Road have doubled the size of the original structures on the site.

At Panorama St Paul’s, London, an outdated office building is being retained an extended to provide a leading contemporary workplace.

With each project we learn more. Reuse of structure, stone, timber, and many other components reincorporated into the same building is well established. Sharing reused materials across multiple projects and making use of circular products and materials is a work in progress. The reduction in embodied carbon emissions through the transformation and reuse of existing buildings and materials will remain important as we transition to a fully renewable energy system, which will reduce the emissions associated with producing new and recycled steel and aluminium.


99 City Road, London, represents the future of transformational adaptive reuse.