Adaptive Reuse – Part 2: Building Lifecycles and Service Upgrades

Adaptive product design means addressing all phases of a product's lifecycle, anticipating change in a manner that allows users to address it in the least invasive manner possible. This means designing robust systems that are durable, adaptable, maintainable and replaceable.

In our last article, we discussed the benefits of the adaptive reuse paradigm in terms of extending the functional use of buildings, reducing CO2e emissions associated with embodied carbon and demolition waste, and in terms of social / historical continuity and place-making. We also discussed instances in which the energy required to preserve a building exceeds that required to demolish it, and when saving a building may be problematic based on its history. In this article, we will be approaching adaptive reuse from the position of product design, and what manufacturers and industrial designers can do to prolong building lifecycles.


Adaptive reuse often involves reprogramming spaces originally designed around specific functional requirements. Manufacturing considerations may vary based on how greatly the original program differs from the new one. In instances where there is a degree of programmatic overlap, or where existing infrastructure and services can be easily repurposed, the challenge might be to develop retrofit kits that accommodate existing field conditions. This can take the form of designing luminaire heads and power supplies for integration into existing housings, especially in instances where there is a desire to retain historical ceilings and luminaires. Doing so well limits cost and waste, while also reducing labor and preserving the original character of the building.

Massachusetts State Senate House
The renovation of the Massachusetts State Senate House required a custom LED fixture design to match the historical style of existing snowflake grills
Massachusetts State Senate House Rosette
Massachusetts State Senate House Rosette

In instances where there is a wide divergence between the original program and the new one, it is likely that building infrastructure will change significantly. In most instances, this will require a complete teardown (if there is anything to tear down), and reconfiguration of building services around the new programmatic requirements. For manufacturers, this might mean that standard products can be easily integrated into the new design, and that any environmental contributions from products will be based on their embodied energy and efficiency.

However, if adaptive reuse suggests anything about the permanence of the built environment, it is that building utility is tied to long-term sustainability, and that the latter is conditional on changes to the former. While the causal relationship between form and function has long been questioned, the reprogramming of spaces evinces a strong relationship between function and infrastructure. If the sustained viability of structures is premised on utility, and use changes, then it might make sense that adaptive reuse initiatives also include strategies that can support future conversation based on evolving functional needs.


The consideration of use over time represents a conceptual shift away from architecture as object, and to architecture as process. This is a shift advocated by Avant Garde architects from the 1950s and 1960s, like Cedric Price, Archigram, the Metabolists and R. Buckminster Fuller. In the radical proposals of these and other sympathetic architects, architecture either transforms over time with new functional requirements, or is made disposable, like mass-market commodities. More radical proposals suggested that, following industrial design, architects should design for the planned obsolescence of their buildings.

In some instances, these types of proposals served as anti-utopian critiques of architectural monumentalism, calling attention to waste in architectural production; in other instances, they represent a new type of utopianism, one that embraces the transitory nature of objects, and perhaps even celebrates change. In the terms of adaptive reuse and environmental sustainability, perhaps the most relevant and radical proposal is to design for planned obsolescence, but not in the way that the phrase is traditionally used to describe the practice of designing products with short lifecycles.

Properly planned obsolescence should include all five stages of a product’s lifecycle, including raw material selection and extraction, processing and manufacturing, distribution, use and maintenance and disposal (or recycling / remanufacturing). It would require focusing attention on the processes that inform the transition from one phase to another, and determining points for potential intervention that would prolong the operational phase, while limiting contributions to the end-of-life stages. It would embrace obsolescence as a process that informs product design as an attribute rather than an accident.

If the goal of adaptive reuse is to extend the longevity of buildings, limiting the impacts of embodied energy, while sustaining the character of place, then a process-based design strategy that accounts for infrastructural change over time will allow for functional adaptability that can further limit the impacts of future changes. Manufacturers who design with maintenance as a priority can support a paradigm of flexibility by making it easy to move, repair and/or replace luminaires quickly and easily based on programmatic changes. This will future proof the design, and may provide means of simplification that lower maintenance costs over time.


The second law of thermodynamics reminds us that all systems tend towards entropy, or, to put it in the language of Lord Kelvin’s fellow Scotsman Robert Burns, “The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men / Gang aft agley.” From the perspective of industrial design and manufacturing, this means that it is important to understand the failure points of a product, to plan for obsolescence in the positive sense of shepherding a product through all phases of its lifecycle responsibly, from material sourcing and processing, to fabrication and assembly, use, repair, reclamation and recycling.

In relation to the paradigm of Adaptive Reuse, this means that not only might it be advantageous to develop variable systems capable of absorbing different programs based on changes to use, but also that those systems evince a certain robustness. This robustness can be described in terms of the anticipated longevity, serviceability, upgradeability and recyclability of the system.

Systems Approach to Robustness
BusRun and Hub Systems are designed to add flexibility and robustness to spaces that change over time

The longevity of the system ensures that system design and implementation are done in such a way that performance remains within system parameters within a set period of time, typically described in terms of warrantees and guarantees. If a manufacturer claims that a system should last 20 years, then they should have a warrantee that supports this claim.

Associated with longevity, is the prolonging of product lifecycles by ensuring that the system can be easily maintained. This might include ensuring that access to known failure points (like drivers) is easy, and that system requirements are clearly labeled in such a way that service technicians can easily source replacement components. It might also include designing subassemblies that are easy to exchange for like assemblies.

Maintainability similarly reinforces upgradeability, and involves designing systems such that critical infrastructure can be updated over time as core components and performance expectations shift. These shifts can be either internal, such as subsequent iterations of components that provide greater efficacy, or wider dynamic performance ranges, or externally, through the development of new system requirements based on new uses. Whichever forces are driving innovation and transformation of the core product, the system itself should be able to absorb these changes (within certain limits).

Retrofit Kits Designed for Maintainability
Retrofit Kits can be used to upgrade recessed luminaires without removing ceilings

All good things come to an end; it is inevitable that original use-cases will emerge that were unpredictable at the time of system implementation; or that changes in technological paradigms will test or exceed the adaptability limits of the system. Yet, if the system is easy to maintain and upgrade, then it should also be easily replaced; designed with disposal in mind, and easy to disassemble and recycle, or that the company has a reclamation program in place to assist in this capacity.


When we bought our new house last year, we noticed a milk box built into the kitchen wall. This is a small box used in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, into which the local milkman would deposit fresh milk on a regular schedule (like Instacart, but 100 years ago). When we unsealed our milk box, we discovered an old glass milk bottle from 1935, and I was reminded that not only did the milkman drop off milk, but he also collected the empty bottles to be reused for subsequent deliveries.

The milk bottle was made of very thick, very heavy glass. It is durable and reuseable (almost a century on, and we now use it for flowers). It also made a lot of economic (if not also ecological) sense to reuse the bottle (increase its use-value / reduce its embodied energy) over time; the more deliveries that the bottle made, the higher its value / lower its embodied footprint. It was an investment, and in the end, cost to the consumer was reduced to that for the raw product (no packaging) and transit (for reference, conditional on the product, transportation accounts for less > 5% of CO2e emissions related to manufacturing, and around 10% of cost depending on the supply chain).

What might be called “the milk-bottle paradigm” refocuses what is meant by “good design.” Most design today fulfills a desire, not a need, and it fulfills that desire only momentarily (such is the nature of desire). Desire-based design limits its functional arc to a truncated moment in time, discounting the continuity of product lifecycles. Milk-bottle design expands the concept of “good design” to include all of the missing moments, and forces industrial designers and manufacturers to explore, analyze and address in depth each phase of a product’s development, deployment and disposal.

Adaptive reuse forces us to at least confront the ways in which disposability has affected building design, construction, habitation and death in two fundamental ways. First, it forces us to ask why demolition is an option, and whether or not it is the best option; second it forces us to address the question of permanence in architecture. One of the biggest challenges to adaptive reuse projects is the removal and replacement of infrastructural systems that were believed to be permanent (like galvanized pipes). Nothing is permanent, so why design as if it will be?

Yet just because something isn’t permanent, doesn’t mean that it should be disposable, or that disposal is not under the purview of design. From the position of manufacturing and industrial design, this means accepting change as the constant, and developing robust systems that are durable, adaptable, maintainable and replaceable, the design of which accounts for all phases of the system’s lifecycle. It means embracing change and providing the services that support it.