Malaysian architect on benefits of adaptive reuse in design

The south wing of the Penang Institute is repurposed from a heritage building. Photos: BETA

There is much interest and support for adaptive reuse in architecture, evident from the positive feedback on my last article on the transformation of a heritage building on Penang Hill. This further strengthens my passion in advocating for this approach.

Generally, the construction of buildings revolves around two main strategies. One focuses on building new structures from scratch, which involve below-ground piling, erecting concrete structures, walls, roof and ceiling, and interior finishes. New constructions are based on customised design solutions drawn up by professional architects.

The second strategy involves demolishing and replacing abandoned old buildings with brand new ones. These methods are often seen as an easier reboot by building from a clean slate.

However, in recent years, adaptive reuse has been gaining much global traction.

What is adaptive reuse, you may ask? Adaptive reuse is all about reusing an existing building for a purpose other than which it was originally designed for. Instead of fully demolishing an old, abandoned building, creative adaptations can give old buildings a second life.

Often, existing structural integrity is retained with clever additions and alterations to adapt to the new use.

Global communities have embraced the effective urban renewal strategy of adaptive reuse of old buildings in cities. An impressive example is the transformation of London’s Battersea Power Station, a former power station adapted into an extraordinary mixed development consisting of places to eat, shop, work and play.The Battersea Power Station in London which has been transformed into a mixed development space. Photo: Nick Fewings/UnsplashThe Battersea Power Station in London which has been transformed into a mixed development space. Photo: Nick Fewings/Unsplash

So what exactly are the benefits of adaptive reuse?

Environmental sustainability

Adaptive reuse allows for the transformation of an existing structure, significantly reducing and eliminating the need for demolition and re-manufacturing of building components and materials. A recent report by the United Nations Environment Programme states that 39% of global CO2 emissions are generated by buildings, with about 11% from building materials and construction activities. The remaining 28% are generated in the building operation phase.

Considering that construction of new housing projects is expected to double by 2060, adaptive reuse is globally applauded as a promising sustainable approach.

This is because it eliminates major construction activities associated with building new structures and dramatically reduces the building operation phase of carbon emissions to the environment.

Architectural heritage

There is no future without a past. By appreciating our past, we forge a better future. When it comes to heritage buildings, adaptive reuse not only prolongs the lifespan of the existing structure, but passes down intangible historical stories of the past.The new annex of the Penang Harmony Centre, another example of adaptive reuse. The new annex of the Penang Harmony Centre, another example of adaptive reuse.

In cities like Penang, the abundant treasure of historical colonial bungalows, shophouses, mansions, churches and even warehouses are adapted to new use to stay relevant to the community. Successful transformations of public buildings in Penang like Macalister Mansion, Edison Hotel, Suffolk House, Hin Bus Depot, as well as the Penang Harmony Centre and Penang Digital Library, are inspiring a stronger appreciation of adaptive reuse. These heritage buildings have become powerful landmarks to revitalise the community and draw visitors to the city.RexKL, formerly the old Rex theatre, is now a thriving arts, culture and event space. Photo: David YeowRexKL, formerly the old Rex theatre, is now a thriving arts, culture and event space. Photo: David Yeow

Cost and time

Apart from being costly, demolitions produce 20 to 30 times more waste than the amount generated by building a new structure. By avoiding demolition, we save demolition costs and avoid unnecessary waste. Adaptive reuse saves significant below-ground structure costs. In certain cases, the existing roof, walls, doors and windows are still in good condition and can be re-used, further reducing the need for building components.

Demolitions are also labour-intensive and the subsequent rebuilding consumes much construction time. In comparison, a comprehensive plan for an adaptive reuse project saves both costs and time.

With the abundance of old heritage buildings in Malaysia, the adaptive reuse approach is not only a highly feasible option but a necessary step towards a future of sustainable construction. Why do we need to always build new, when we still have many old, dilapidated buildings worthy of a second life?

Tan Bee Eu is a professional architect and interior designer registered with Lembaga Arkitek Malaysia with over two decades of professional practice. She also teaches at Universiti Sains Malaysia and is a frequent keynote speaker at architectural forums and juror of international awards. She can be reached at

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