Old Building, New Life: Exploring Adaptive Reuse of Existing Buildings

Old Building, New Life: Exploring Adaptive Reuse of Existing Buildings

Cities are the social, cultural, and economic hubs of most countries. Here, Cebisa Mafukuzela, Sustainable Building Consultant at Solid Green discusses the Adaptive Reuse of old, under-utilised and abandoned buildings.

One of the measures used to rate the success of a city is growth – population growth, new development, and a growing economy. Development is evident in almost all our major cities in South Africa and the construction cranes you see scattered across economic hubs such as Sandton, Rosebank, The Waterfront, Century City, Umhlanga and Menlyn are a clear indication that our cities are growing upwards and outwards. Pretoria and Johannesburg, for example, are slowly but surely merging into one megalopolis.

In these same cities that are developing so fast, you will also find pockets where buildings are run down, have no services and are empty and forgotten. Is this just a symptom of development? Does the idea of a growing city mean focus can only be on the new? I would like to believe that we can both grow as modern societies and also ensure that the oldest parts of our cities are still liveable, thriving and comfortable.

The idea of Adaptive Reuse is a growing trend in the built environment because so many older buildings are under-utilised. Some of these buildings may hold historic or cultural value, while others may be investments that didn’t reach their full potential. To focus on the adaptation of existing buildings gives cities an opportunity to grow and reuse existing resources, creating a society that is both modern and development-focused but also sensitive to the environmental impact of growth.

The concept of adaptive reuse gives old buildings an opportunity for new life, which can lead to revitalising urban areas economically while preserving history and culture. To date, the focus of adaptive reuse has been on old buildings with heritage value. However, this concept is an opportunity to revitalise abandoned buildings of all types to give them and the surrounding neighbourhoods an opportunity to start regenerating.


Buildings that are under-utilised but not dilapidated or old are what could be considered “low hanging fruit”. These buildings are generally recently vacated due to a change in economic activity or a cultural shift but are still fully serviced and functional and may even be contemporary.

The use of office parks, for example, was already on a steady decline before the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic and, since 2020, many such developments have been left empty. Office parks could be repurposed with little to no intervention. Today, as accessible health care becomes more of a priority, office parks could potentially be converted into medical centres or clinics. They already have cellular spaces that could easily become doctors’ rooms, boardrooms that could be converted into small treatment rooms, and many other adaptations that may not need major interventions.


This approach would focus on buildings that may not be completely run down but would still need architectural intervention to bring them into the now. Minor structural changes and additions could be made to allow for greater flexibility and adaptability. Although libraries have been made almost redundant by advances in access to information and a change in the way we work and learn, it is essential to ensure that everyone has access to these technologies and resources.

Converting libraries from book-based resource centres to digital and multimedia resource centres would allow people access to devices and data that might not otherwise be available to them. These buildings would once again become an integral part of learning and information exchange within communities.


Every city has buildings that are old but still beautiful or that house important services. Restoring these buildings to maintain the function they were designed for presents a unique adaptive opportunity. For example, old apartment blocks in most city centres are a prime opportunity to provide much-needed housing, create economic activity in neighbourhoods that may have become inactive, and house communities that have been excluded from new, more expensive developments.

Building for Resilience

Although we cannot always prevent the factors that result in buildings being abandoned, we can build and design with the future in mind. The idea of building for resilience is focused on design, use and material choices that ensure that the building has structural integrity for a long life, and embed attributes of adaptability. Considerations for designing new buildings should therefore take into account the potential uses that may be required in future; as well as adaptability of layout, form and material choices for a future climate that may have higher temperatures and more extreme weather events.

Buildings are part of the fabric of society, and we need to be able to re-invent and rehabilitate them as needed. We need to allow them to grow and change with our needs as a society as well as the changing demands of the environment.

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