Is Adaptive Reuse of Office Buildings Here to Stay?

With the world becoming an increasingly crowded place, innovation in building use is on the rise. Adaptive reuse has long been a key pillar of architecture, but bold adaptive reuse schemes are increasingly finding their way into office design. Andrew Tunnicliffe considers some of the most eye-catching projects and talks to those involved to find out if this is a sign of things to come

The original glulam arches of Google’s Spruce Goose reach a height of 75ft at the highest point. The wood of the arches, the building envelope, and the siding along the central spine (the structure at the right side of the image with the diagonal wood panelling) is all original, rehabilitated and preserved with care. Image courtesy of Google | Connie Zhou

If you’ve worked in an office for any period of time, you’ll no doubt have had a colleague – perhaps even your line manager – mention your desk, more notably its tidiness or otherwise. Researchers have conducted studies, psychologists have a view and workmates will have, at least once or twice, passed judgement on an individual’s workspace and what it means about their personality.

Whether you subscribe to such beliefs or not, the great majority of us draw assumptions from what we see. Often we take a position based on how something looks, determining what we think about a person, place or even business. It is, at least in part, for this reason adaptive reuse of buildings is growing in popularity in the workplace – particularly office – environment.

What’s driving the adaptive reuse trend?

“The move towards adaptive reuse in workplace design has gained popularity for a few reasons,” says James Woolum, partner at US architects ZGF. “For one, people don’t feel constrained anymore by traditional concepts of what an ‘office’ is supposed to look like.” Another significant factor, he adds, is the growing desire for authenticity and a connection to something more permanent. “These older buildings with their rawness, exposed bones and old scars don’t just provide evidence of the past, they tell us that there are still things in this world that endure and stand the test of time.”

A few years back ZGF was commissioned by tech giant Google to reimagine a 1940s aircraft hangar close to LAX airport, creating a new office space known as the Spruce Goose. The hangar was originally designed by Hollywood mogul and airplane enthusiast Howard Hughes. With its original timber frame still intact, the 229 metre long structure became Google’s home in 2016 after previously being used as a film studio and base for Hughes’ H-4 Hercules airplane, nicknamed The Spruce Goose.

“In some cases, particularly with formerly industrial buildings, pre-existing spaces can be infinitely more customisable. Because they are often just shells to begin with, they are supremely flexible, allowing the client to mould the space to meet their exact needs and desires right now and at any point in the future,” says Woolum.

Such possibilities are a huge draw for companies as they can more easily see how their brand and culture would be reflected back at them, Woolum argues. “They also often have a tonne of character and personality and just inherently deliver a ‘wow factor’, even as a raw space,” he says. “This is especially true of historic buildings.”

“ People don’t feel constrained anymore by traditional concepts of what an ‘office’ is supposed to look like. 

From former hangars to disused warehouses, decommissioned factories to hospitals of yesteryear, adaptive reuse is a trend that shows no sign of losing its appeal. It’s not just the US where its popularity is flourishing. In Europe – where there is arguably more history – it’s thriving too. “We see a noticeable increase in the need for adaptive reuse projects in Madrid,” says Pablo Lopez Navarro, co-founder of Spanish design studio Casa Josephine.

However, for cities like Madrid, in addition to the perceived image benefits other factors are accelerating the trend. “What seems to be driving it, at least here, is the lack of space for new office buildings in the city centre,” Lopez Navarro says, adding that although the notion of reusing a building for today’s demanding office space is appealing to some, more established and larger companies have, so far at least, opted to locate themselves away from the city centre.

That is not the case for younger businesses that want a central plot. “Small firms or offices that want to be central are forced to adapt pre-existing spaces for new uses,” says Lopez Navarro. “Restorations and adaptations are needed.”

Madrid is quite unique, with fewer larger buildings, the likes of which you might find in Milan, Glasgow, Berlin, Dublin or Paris.

“The adaptive reuse of spaces here is happening in buildings of a much smaller scale,” Lopez Navarro notes. “Our reconversion of a motorcycle workshop into a marketing agency workspace would be an example of the average size of these projects.”

Projects that redefine a building

Casa Josephine worked on the former two-storey workshop for an advertising agency that wanted the space to encourage creativity among its staff. “There were virtually no specifications or restrictions in the style, looks or visual language of the project. The demands had to do with the use: flexibility, openness, natural light and comfort,” says Lopez Navarro.

He says the challenges of such conversions – the workshop was listed, meaning the façade had to be returned to the original looks of the time of the construction – are two-fold.

“The challenges are always how to meet two sets of regulations: laws on how to adapt old buildings to new uses, and specific laws for work spaces,” Lopez Navarro says. “Workplace regulations in Spain are very strict and they affect every single detail of the design, from the specific dimensions of chairs that can be used to the type and placement of bathrooms, type of fabric, amount of light.

“As work dynamics, commuting habits and technologies are changing, we will see a new re-definition of what an office is. Flexibility, sustainability and adaptability seem to be the present, as are co-working, the sublet of workplaces and the possibility of different uses in different moments of the day.”

“ How do you tap into the underlying issue, which is that craving for authenticity, without going to the industrial look? 

Lopez Navarro also believes that consideration of a company’s image is helping drive the desire for such workspaces.

“The benefits for the client have to do more with marketing and prestige of image,” he says. “Clients that commission projects of adaptive reuse of a pre-existing space usually understand that the result can be used for marketing purposes, both as projection of their image or their values, and for the value of the storytelling.”

It’s a trend Woolum believes will continue unabated. “The challenge is to continue to look for ways to deliver permanence and authenticity in realms other than creative and tech companies that are comfortable in these sorts of environments,” he says. “Not every law firm or research institute is going to be interested in a raw space. How do you tap into the underlying issue, which is that craving for authenticity, without going to the industrial look?”

The benefits of reusing buildings, particularly those redesigned for very different uses from their original intention, doesn’t stop with the company using them, argues Woolum. “In addition to the environmental and corporate culture benefits, repurposing buildings – from unused aircraft hangars to decommissioned shopping malls – can have a huge impact on reinvigorating the surrounding communities, [providing an] economic boost, jobs, beautification, walkability, improved health and lifestyle.”

Woolum adds the growth in this sort of project will continue and perhaps even grow stronger. “All around [the US], our cities are looking at vast amounts of ageing building stock and what to do with that,” he says. “Consideration for environmental and cultural impacts, and the desire for flexibility and authenticity in the places in which we live and work will only become more important to our clients, their employees and our communities as a whole as time goes on.