Giving new life to historic buildings leads to happier, healthier cities

San Francisco Art Institute – Fort Mason Center

By Kathleen M. O’Donnell

Almost every city in America has a historic building awaiting a rebirth. Whether it’s a 300-year-old church, a 19th century warehouse, or even a 1950’s gas station, there is potential for great new spaces in your community.

Transforming a structure for a purpose different from its original one is what designers and architects call adaptive reuse. Adaptive reuse projects often come with historic preservation tax breaks, and embarking on one can prevent massive construction timelines and costs typical of new structures. They also help cities leverage existing infrastructure, which can reduce urban sprawl, enhance enjoyment of civic spaces, and ultimately create healthier and more beautiful communities. Like many design endeavors, adaptive reuse projects require collaboration amongst designers, community members, and government organizations.

Every year AIA’s Committee on the Environment recognizes ten innovative projects that integrate design excellence with environmental performance. Beyond rigorous sustainability and ecological criteria, special attention to community and wellness factors is critical for selected projects. This year’s COTE Top Ten featured more adaptive reuse projects than ever before, signifying that the social and health value of these properties is on the rise.

The following recipients exemplify how a community’s existing buildings can be put to use for improved workplaces, schools, and cultural institutions.

Mundo Verde at Cook Campus

Washington, DC

Built with the spirit of educating Washington, DC’s youth to become stewards of the environment, Mundo Verde Bilingual Public Charter school’s campus is a prime example of mission-driven design. In renovating an existing public school building and designing new complementary facilities, Studio Twenty Seven Architecture and their partners created an energy efficient and resilient property that provides a framework for Mundo Verde’s inventive sustainability-focused curriculum. The school community hosted exercises to collect aspirations from students and families. Such activities resulted in the design of learning gardens, storm water reservoirs, and thoughtful transportation solutions that bolster the school’s educational offerings and contribute to public health. Situated in a part of the District undergoing massive regeneration, Mundo Verde promotes health, wellness, and environmental consciousness in an urban context. Learn more about Mundo Verde at Cook Campus here.

Ortliebs Bottling House 

Philadelphia, PA

By transforming a mid-century beer bottling plant into a modern workplace for its employees, architecture firm KieranTimberlake serviced a rapidly changing Philadelphia neighborhood while paying homage to its past. Ortliebs Bottling House, now on the National Register of Historic Places, is one of the last remaining vestiges of what was once a sprawling industrial complex. Throughout design and construction, the KieranTimberlake team and their collaborators engaged with area residents, who now use the space frequently for civic events and enjoy improved streets and sidewalks. Known for their achievements in data-driven design, KieranTimberlake created cutting-edge technology and materials to ensure a healthy environment for its inhabitants and the surrounding community. Learn more about Ortlieb’s Bottling House here.


San Francisco Art Institute – Fort Mason Center Pier 2

San Francisco, CA

The San Francisco Art Institute’s campus at Fort Mason Center Pier 2 is an adaptive reuse project that inspires the school and the broader community to understand and engage in the arts. Owned and operated by the SFAI and the Fort Mason Center for Arts and Culture, the campus sits on a historic US army warehouse district right on the San Francisco Bay. Design team Leddy Maytum Stacy Architects worked with local and federal organizations as well as students, faculty, and staff in the planning process. The facilities incorporate advanced sustainable building systems to support a variety of needs for the school community and visitors alike including flexible learning spaces, studios and galleries, and a theater. The latest in a string of pier transformations in San Francisco, Fort Mason is now a center of modern arts and culture that maintains historical value. Learn more about San Francisco Art Institute – Fort Mason Center Pier 2 here.

Learn more about working with an architect in your area, by contacting an AIA chapter near you.

Photo credits: Mundo Verde at Cook Campus: Anice Hoachlander/Hoachlander Davis Photography; Ortliebs Bottling House: Michael Moran/OTTO; San Francisco Art Institute – Fort Mason Center: Bruce Damonte.