Adaptive Reuse Architecture: Why, How & When


As architects with a focus on adaptive reuse design, we have turned opera houses into brewpubs, liquor stores into studios, and sad, dark kitchens into sunny, sleek and modern ones. We’ve made stairs out of shipping crates and benches out of bowling alleys.

We strive to minimize our impact on the environment by practicing adaptive reuse whenever possible—saving not only the “good bones” of buildings and homes, but often the organs, sinew and fascia, too! This philosophy of transformation, connection and treading lightly is the heart and soul of what we do here at moss. Cool window frames? Funky tile? We’ll take it; and what’s more, we’ll build with it.


Adaptive reuse is when you go to a gallery opening in Brooklyn…at a former Walkman factory.

Adaptive reuse is when you look for an awesome Airbnb for vacation… and it’s inside a shipping container.

Adaptive reuse design is…whenever you give an existing building, home or venue a new purpose. Or maintain the same purpose, but while preserving, rebuilding, enhancing or maintaining some or all elements of the building.

Adaptive reuse of a former retail storefront. Now home to Dollop Coffee.

When we restored that old, crumbly pool with the gorgeous ceiling at The Lawrence House—that was adaptive reuse. And when we moved our first studio into a former transformer station back in 2008—that was adaptive reuse, too.

It’s basically every episode of Weekend Update with Stefon! And while it does make good fodder for a little playfulness (like this vintage toilet room turned sandwich shop in Victoria), adaptive reuse is actually an approach to sustainable architecture that retains personality, pays homage to history, and reduces landfill-bound waste. 

The Australian Government’s Department of Environment and Heritage published a report saying that “the reuse of building materials usually involves a saving of approximately 95% of embodied energy that would otherwise be wasted.” There’s an economic arc to this as well, and our friends across the globe know it. “Embodied energy savings from not demolishing a building will only increase with the predicted rise in energy costs in the future,” the report says. The Australian government defines Embodied Energy as “…the energy consumed by all of the processes associated with the production of a building, from the mining and processing of natural resources to manufacturing, transport, and product delivery.”


While some argue that only new construction can be energy efficient enough to make an impact, this philosophy can fall prey to some of the flaws in any form of idealism. Look, we’ve been in houses in Europe; many of them could use a little help in the insulation department. But the truth is we can’t wipe the slate clean and start again without scrapping entire city blocks and leaving them to slowly degrade in a landfill. And beyond purely logistical arguments, many of these buildings are beautiful, interesting and tell the story of years we will never experience ourselves, barring time travel.

To put our money where our mouth is, some statistics follow from the EPA’s Report (update in 2009) “Buildings and their Impact on the Environment” 

  • Buildings accounted for 38.9% of Energy Consumption in the U.S. in 2005.
  • Out of the total energy consumption in an average household, 50% goes to space heating, 27% to run appliances, 19% to heat water and 4% goes to air conditioning.
  • On average, Americans spend 90% of their time indoors.
  • Building-related construction and demolition (C&D) debris totals approximately 160 million tons per year, accounting for nearly 26% of total non-industrial waste generation in the U.S.
  • Sources of the building-related C&D debris waste stream include demolition (accounting for approximately 48% of the waste stream per year), renovation (44%), and new construction (8%).
  • The average U.S. family moves every 10 years. Homes often undergo many renovations over their lifetimes, or complete building removal is carried out to make room for a newer home.

To interpret this data through the lens of adaptive reuse and its benefits to the environment we can assert that: 

  • The mobility of American families is high (if each family that lives in a single family home or other unit moves every ten years a family might move 4-5 times in a generation, according to statistics!)
  • Construction & Demolition (C&D) will inevitably lead to some debris, but the majority (48%) is a result of demolition. New construction, which grows more efficient every year, is unsurprisingly a marginal contributor to this waste stream. The remaining 44% is from renovation.
  • Indoor time: Americans spend 90% of their time in some sort of building or another. In the average household, 50% of energy consumption goes to heating.
  • C&D debris is about 160 million tons per year. Aka, there’s room to improve!

In Conclusion: 

  • Reusing any element of a building’s structure can cut down on that 160 million tons
  • Refraining from demolishing a building in its entirety can  also help.
  • Improving insulation and building envelope quality can easily lower that energy consumption stat without affecting the quality of life.
  • In a more globalized world, people and ventures are constantly moving, whether its a new startup supplanting an old one or a family moving to another city. If we demolished a home each and every time someone moved, we’d have even more trash headed for the landfill. And that doesn’t even get to the fuel spent by importing brand new materials.

In this post, we’ll hear from everyone on the moss team about why adaptive reuse is paramount to their architectural philosophy, and we’ll include case studies to illustrate our words. Now that we sorta know what it is and why it’s key to sustainable architecture, let’s move on to why it’s so important to us.

Case Study: Jordano Photo Studio

Key Feature: An auto shop transformed into a photo studio

“Adaptive reuse allows us, the designers and architects, the freedom to use the rich elements of the old, and weave in new technologies and aesthetic elements. If done well, it can be better than 100% old, or 100% new,” says Chris Koster. 

The former auto repair shop had lived a solid life tending to cars, but once its interior was transformed into a sun-kissed photographers studio, we feel confident it’s never looked better. New windows and a cleaning of the Chicago Common Brick we found inside helped upgrade the space’s look and feel, without scrapping its valuable assets (aka the brick and foundation). We also spiffed up the concrete floors and wooden rafters, rendering them ready for their new occupant.

On the existing exterior, we added some corten steel. When we started on the space, it only had a garage door and a rear door, and barely any other opportunity for light to come through. Without the philosophy of adaptive reuse in our toolbox, we might have dismissed this ol’ garage (which was, after all, not a studio to begin with) as not worth saving. But as seasoned Jedis in the ways of reuse, we stuck with the building to realize the vision we’d had all along. We added windows, a loft and a fleet of skylights, all while saving the elements described above.

Case Study: Brew Traverse City

Key Feature: A century-old opera house is converted to a brewpub


“Adaptive Reuse is important in the context of sustainable architecture because it is the most minimal, non-invasive, respectful, and innovative approach to building design,” says Liyan Wan. “Construction contributes a significant carbon footprint within the overall life cycle of a building, from material sourcing to transportation of the material.”

Like we saw with Jordano Photo Studio above, one man’s auto shop is another’s photography live/work palace. Constraints help boost creative solutions, and since we live on a planet with finite resources, and every project has a budget, there is plenty of creative kindling in every single architecture project. Doubly so with an existing space!

This beautiful, brick-adorned brewpub made use of a centurion opera house to create a wonderful community space with a “been there forever” feel. “Often, the most innovative and creative design is a result of imposed constraints and external boundaries and the mash-up of old and new material and thought,” Liyan says. That excellent insulation that makes Brew so toasty? For that, you have salvaged Michigan brick to thank. “In some cases reusing a building envelope not only provide better thermal insulation and structural integrity due to its use of heavier construction material (masonry, stone, heavy timber) but also retains its vernacular character,” says Liyan. Speaking of vernacular, Brew’s yellow-tinged bricks are a result of the area’s local yellow clay. No brand-new brick can do that! We could have probably let sleeping dogs lie at this point, but we were tempted by a nearby bowling alley that was headed for the chopper. We rescued its glossy wood to create furniture for Brew’s interior and to complement its classic zinc bar.

Case Study: The Dill Pickle

Key Feature: A former retail location was the perfect blueprint for the new Dill Pickle

“We constantly think about how people interact with buildings and the natural environment,” says Laura Cripe Nardella, our principal. “Adaptive reuse, especially in urban environments, is a way of providing environmentally responsive design that creates a strong sense of place and authenticity and enhances the value of buildings and amenities.”

Our neighborhoods are the places we live, work and recreate—but they are also living maps of the past, present and even future uses of the layout. “In an era of teardowns and gentrification we are dedicated to repurposing and transforming the urban fabric to accommodate new uses, reconnect people with nature, support local business and provide unique spaces for future generations,” she says.

Sometimes a building has a use that the neighborhood no longer needs. Maybe it used to house a telegram station. But with a little architectural panache, it could be a post office. But wait, there’s a post office across the street! This is where a full scan of a neighborhood is helpful in determining what services a community needs. We had already designed The Dill Pickle on Fullerton back in 2009, so we were well aware that it was popular, and furthermore that Logan Square was in need of a grocery store. We also really wanted it to be easily accessible by non-car transportation, so having bike parking and train access was also central to the location scouting.

Case Study: Park(ing) Day

Key Feature: Reclaiming public space for the use of pedestrians and cyclists

Our involvement with Park(ing) Day predates the 2010s, where we first happened upon the global movement to transform parking spaces into recreational spaces for pedestrians and cyclists. Our annual participation in Park(ing) Day evolved into our design and fabrication of Parklets, or mini-parks, across the city, which we created to reuse parking space for all to enjoy.

Case Study: Logan Certified Studio and Loft

Key Feature: We converted an aging liquor store into our new studio and developed it into a modern loft

“There is a tremendous amount of construction waste in landfills around the world. It takes a staggering amount of energy to extract, process and ship new building materials,” says our Principal and Founder Matt Nardella. “When we can creatively repurpose an existing structure to accommodate a new use we are removing all the typical negative aspects of construction while letting the building tells its story.”

“Using an existing building allows us to apply more of the project funds to interior finishes and spend less money on putting a roof on the building, so to speak,” says Drew Bayley. Delivering on our client’s budgets is paramount to us, and it’s paramount to our clients, too. Many of our individual and family clients are looking for spaces they won’t need to gut so they can put their dollars toward that dream stove or Vitamix nook.

Our new studio and first development project was built in a former liquor store. We kept the classic food and liquor sign out front, restored the tin ceiling, and cleaned up the interior bricks. We also filled it with desks and tables that we designed using reclaimed and spiffed-up hardwoods. More on that here. Installing a solar panel array was well worth it, but as a sizable investment, it certainly helped to know that we already had the foundation for our studio built.

Case Study: Lawrence House

Key Feature: We adapted a former residential hotel into vintage-influenced apartment units

Picture of a modern british inspired lobby at the rehabbed lawrence house apartments in Chicago's uptown neighborhood


“Our city is filled with existing buildings, many of which have a character that is impossible to recreate with new construction, and this is a huge opportunity for us as architects,” says Drew Bayley. “By using these spaces for a new restaurant or residence, we get to react to the character and spatial qualities that come with the building, as opposed to starting with a blank slate.”

The Lawrence House was a residential hotel with a smoke-damaged drop ceiling. This ceiling was covered for half a century, before being restored to make the Lawrence House lobby a thing of vintage vaulted beauty. The aforementioned pool (remember the beginning of this post? So…long…ago) in the Lawrence House’s basement had beautiful antique tile and another sloping, dramatic ceiling, but due to years of neglect, it had fallen into disrepair. We restored it to a fully functional pool for all tenants to enjoy instead of scrapping it. “Starting with the constraints of an existing building is an exciting challenge,” Drew says. “By adapting these existing buildings, often already close to a century old, to new uses, we can extend their life several more decades.”

Case Study: Reclaimed Furniture

Key Features: Reclaimed and storm-damaged wood makes beautiful furniture

Our forests are being destroyed at an alarming rate. According to a statistic from The World Research Institute, 80% of the world’s forests are gone. Such facts make it difficult as designers to sanction for the felling of new trees to fulfill our vision, so instead we use as much reclaimed wood as possible. Some of our wood comes from storm-felled trees in Illinois, other wood comes from bowling alleys in Michigan or demolished barns in Indiana. This lumber isn’t just scrap to be thrown into a landfill. This is Wisconsonian Black Walnut, one of the most revered hardwoods for its high quality and beautiful endurance. Or it’s Maple, which is sought after for its smooth finish and ready absorption of decorative stains. It’s also Elm, which was cut down due to Dutch Elm disease, but still able to be transformed into a beautiful conference table. Quality materials, like elm, maple, and walnut, take a long time to grow—they are trees after all. Letting them go to waste while cutting down more trees would be unconscionable, so we feel proud to have reused them into furniture that is a pleasure to use, look at, and share with our clients.

Culture and Adaptive Reuse

This topic is understandably immense, and while we can’t do it justice here, we can provide a brief summary of our thoughts:

  • Adaptive reuse allows for communication between time and place in a given space. E.g. the German buildings in Lincoln Square or the Czech constructions in Pilsen. These things tell us about the history of the neighborhood, and if the owners of Thalia Hall had simply started from scratch, we wouldn’t be able to observe and utilize this piece of living history.
  • Adaptive reuse allows neighborhoods, to some extent, to retain character and heritage. Although neighborhoods will always change and evolve over time, it can be a source of comfort and familiarity for residents to see key sites preserved despite the tide of real estate
  • A lot of the architecture, fabrication, and technique of older times is beautiful, high quality and interesting. We tend more toward spare, modern buildings in new constructions, so to see something more ornate in a sea of modern buildings keeps it interesting and pays homage to the dominant styles of the past; similar to a modern wardrobe of Luxon and poly-blends next to a genuine 100% wool suit set, scooped up a thrift store. It adds visual interest, specificity and tells a story.
  • It maintains the exterior of beautiful thoughtful buildings that reduce waste and promote general wonder when the function of the building has been phased out. Let’s go back if you will to that walkman factory. What if that factory was a landmark? By allowing the interior to be transformed into a restaurant or art gallery, the building continues to have relevance, instead of just becoming the equivalent of a living room with fancy furniture that can never be touched.
To wrap up, remember that adaptive reuse isn’t a set of rigid rules, but rather guidelines to encourage us to reduce waste, conserve energy and extend the life of old and beautiful buildings. And check out our handy visual (thank you Piktochart!)

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