Preserving the past in new buildings is back in fashion

Adaptive reuse is taking off, allowing developers to cut down on waste, retain a building's character and even save money on construction costs

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 09 July, 2014, 5:02am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 09 July, 2014, 5:12am

Giving new life to old buildings is one thing, but if it is not useful in the end, it will not be sustainable - and even buildings need to pay their way.

Repurposing, on the other hand, may achieve that. Using architectural innovation to make an existing structure viable again seems preferable on many levels: it retains some linkage to the past, saves construction waste and, sometimes, can even be more cost-effective than starting from scratch. Architects call this "adaptive reuse". And if it has not yet come to a neighbourhood near you, chances are it is not far away.

Repurposing of old buildings has been practised throughout history, says Teresa Jan, associate architect at global design firm M Moser Associates. It has come into vogue across America as people relinquish the suburban dream and move back into cities. In Hong Kong and, even occasionally, on the mainland the trend is catching on.

"Hearst Tower in Manhattan is a great example of juxtaposing a 1928 cast stone façade with a modern steel frame skyscraper, reviving the original vision of William Hearst," Jan says. "The High Line is a public park repurposed from a defunct railway elevated above the streets of Manhattan; and the old San Francisco ferry terminal was repurposed as offices and shops after the Bay bridge was built."

Jan also sees evidence of this here, citing projects including the repurposing of a heritage prison on Mount Davis for the Hong Kong campus of US business school Chicago Booth, scheduled to open in 2017, and the Sham Shui Po campus of Savannah College of Art and Design, transformed from the decommissioned North Kowloon Magistracy building (by international architecture firm Leo A Daly).

On the mainland, the trendy galleries, boutiques and restaurants making up Beijing 798 Art Zone were, in a former life, factories and warehouses. The abandoned remains of an old steel factory in Hongqiao have been turned into Red Town, which comprises museums, galleries, studios and boutiques. And while Paris has its revitalised Les Halles and New York its famous Meatpacking District, Old Millfun in Shanghai - once the municipal slaughterhouse - has been reborn as an upscale landmark of Bund 18, housing fashion, art, and corporate events.

Corporate consciousness is awakening to the potential. For Huabao International, a mainland manufacturer of flavour and fragrance additives, a quandary was what to do with its outdated Shanghai factory. The solution, by M Moser Associates in Shanghai, was to repurpose the old building into a shiny new global headquarters, reflecting the company's rise to global prominence.

To create it, the site's existing office building was transformed inside and out. The original façade was replaced with glass curtain walls, stone cladding and distinctive perforated screen wraps. Inside, the maze-like layout was supplanted by collaborative open-plan spaces in a palette of natural colours and materials.

In a design that has its conceptual roots in nature, perforated metal ribbons installed over the glazed outer walls mimic the sun-dappled effect of sunlight filtering through foliage. They also serve to camouflage the building's irregularities, which included subsidence in some areas.

The original interior layout presented a further challenge. To begin its transformation into something more flexible and contemporary, the team gutted the building. "All that was left were the four floor slabs," said M Moser's project director, Nabil Sabet.

Inside, the feeling of nature is recreated in a soaring, cylindrical main entrance and reception, meeting room and training spaces. This part of the building was also designed with a future addition in mind.

Adaptive-use projects such as these are aligned with the environmental efforts of recycling, Jan says, adding: "This might not always equate to a cost saving, however, it saves the embodied energy of an existing structure from being defunct."

In the case of the Tai O fishing village on Lantau Island, the repurposing of just one building has also injected life into an entire community. The Grade II historic former marine police station had lain empty for years before its transformation into a nine-room hotel, creating jobs for villagers and boosting trade for local businesses. Occupancy has exceeded 90 per cent since Tai O Heritage Hotel opened in February 2012.

Philip Liao, the project's design architect, says this was a classic example of a building that had outlived its purpose, yet still had inherent value.

"There are difficulties in adaptive reuse," concedes Liao, founder of the firm Philip Liao and Partners. "Old buildings were built for a certain purpose, according to the technology and specifications of the time. Time changes requirements for space and equipment such as air conditioning and lifts."

Trying to preserve the integrity of the façade, to suit how people live these days, is challenging, though not insurmountable, he says. "Old buildings are important, and when correctly repurposed, they can be both a reminder of the past, and a celebration of the future."