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Adaptive Reuse - An Environmental, Cultural, and Financial Solution to Sustainable Urban Growth

Model projections show that over 2.5 billion people are expected to live in urban areas by 2050. Concerns over space scarcity, resource allocation, and climate resiliency push cities, architects, and urban planners to search for answers within an infrastructure that already exists. 

Adaptive reuse, put simply, is the repurposing of old, outdated, and abandoned structures and spaces for new use. Today, it is considered one of the best architectural strategies to promote social justice and address the climate crisis. It functions as a tool to realize urban regeneration, preserve cultural heritage, and reduce costs and environmental impacts from construction and new materials, all while creating prosperity and redistributing opportunity in condensed urban centers. Research shows that in most circumstances, adaptive reuse "better establishes or retains community identity and does more to foster local pride than new construction." However, this is only sometimes the case, and in-depth studies, engagement with the community, and obtaining buy-in from the members should occur before a project starts.

Broadly, adaptive reuse hits the social, economic, and environmental dimensions outlined by the UN's sustainable development goals. Its position as a solution to resource and space scarcity issues is paramount in a time of growing populations and evermore prevalent environmental threats. As the Clean Energy Finance Corporation's Sara Thomas says, "The reason that adaptive reuse strategies are important to us is because most buildings in use today will still be operational in 2050 when we need to be at net zero." It negates a substantial portion of the footprint that development requires and pushes innovation to best optimize today's built environment to service the requirements of an ever-changing future.

Adaptive Reuse and MKThink

Adaptive Reuse at the Edge 

MKThink thrives at the intersections of environmental, cultural, architectural, and technological edges. Concerning the built environment, work at the edge utilizes the principles of adaptive reuse to uphold integrity. Resources are constrained, and adaptive reuse guides are designed to get the most out of what already exists. 

MKThink’s work with the University of Hawai’i (UH) Manoa exemplifies adaptive reuse at the edge. The university wanted to transform its campus into a Native Hawaiian place of learning and expand enrollment within the constraints of its tax-payer-funded capital program. 

To help the university realize this vision, MKThink sought to understand the best opportunities for expanding the productive space within the existing campus. By assessing campus patterns and perceptions and analyzing building conditions, space utilization, and scheduling, the team could identify the areas of campus not used to their full potential and where change could drive optimization. They identified specific strategies and guidelines for targeted transformation, or adaptive reuse, of the high-impact locations on campus to meet UH Manoa’s goals.

MKThink’s long-range plan supported 10% enrollment growth (particularly among Native Hawaiians) while reducing campus square footage by 1,000,000 square feet. The university avoided over $600 MM in new construction costs and reduced its deferred maintenance backlog by $150 MM. At the edge of culture, technology, and the environment, MKThink brought new life, purpose, and functionality to the existing space. Their strategic design plan made the most out of what was already there. 

Adaptive Reuse and Lagom ar Bast

As the attitude of MKThink, Lagom Ar Bast translates roughly to just enough is as good as a feast. Lagom, as an attitude, guides adaptive reuse as a practice, driving the vision of what is already available is enough. Readapting the existing infrastructure to meet the needs of a community inherently acts on building less to solve more, breathing new life into old, and steering towards a framework of sustainable development. 

MKThink's work with the Emeryville Unified School District (EUSD) exemplifies how Lagom guides adaptive reuse so "just enough" brings new life and meets the community's needs. Wedged between Oakland and Berkeley, EUSD faced the challenge of providing its students and community with quality services within budgetary limitations. A number of aging schools with low enrollment exacerbated this issue, further complicating the question of how to allocate funding to improve services and facilities for the district as a whole. 

The city hypothesized that the best solution was a singular location that served as a school center for community and family services. They engaged MKThink to test, validate, design, and implement a functional, operational, and planning solution to meet the needs of a diverse set of city stakeholders. This solution would adaptively reuse community land, breathing life into space previously unproductive to the community's needs.

In the end, MKThink evaluated and concluded a consolidated "center of community life" yielded a greater cumulative net value than separate facilities. The plan gained 80% of Emeryville city voters approval of the property-funded tax bond that raised $65 MM in funds to support the construction of the complex. Now complete, the center provides services from early childhood education and afterschool programs to health and family support services, child-care services, job training, and college courses. 

Following Lagom, the consolidated community center uses “just enough space” to provide the community with a hub that supports its needs, fosters connection, and increases the facility's net value.

More Projects with MKThink and Adaptive Reuse:

A functionally outdated lecture hall welcoming communities beyond the student body 

A historic building infused with new life as an active hub to stir innovation through design thinking.

Confines can still result in growth.

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