Adaptive Reuse in Higher Education

Adaptive reuse in higher education is becoming an increasingly important strategy in campus planning and facilities management. Recently, especially since 2009, economic pressures have often required reassessment of capital projects in favor of maximizing existing facility performance, and operationally balancing educational space needs. Over the past two years, as in other periods of economic downturn, this has become more and more a tactical necessity when balancing the total cost of delivering higher education. The challenge is to maintain a strategic approach in the face of these pressures.  As educational facility designers and planners, we strive to keep a few crucial goals firmly in mind. Brand, Sustain, and Transform are three focus concepts key to both strategic and tactical success in the Master Planning and adaptive re-use of higher educational environments.

An existing facility is transformed into a signature building for a campus expansion


Experience has shown us that embracing this challenge actually reveals strategic opportunities in the highly competitive world of identity, recruitment, and endowment in higher education. Planning and design can create a campus “brand”. Adaptive reuse – done well – can also nurture an established campus “legacy”. The new design must participate in the way-finding and sense of place in the greater Campus context. The lesson is that the built environment of a campus leaves a lasting impression on those who use it. Redesigning the building envelope can be an opportunity for re-branding the campus image. Transforming aging structures from non-descript, background buildings into campus landmarks can create a “gateway” effect as a first impression when arriving on campus.


Adaptive reuse integrates existing structures with new programs and technology providing a high performance building which readily enhances its setting. Adaptive reuse renews the campus-wide infrastructure and aesthetics of older buildings already “plugged” in.

Careful consideration of long-term cost of ownership is a primary consideration of higher education institutions. Institutional buildings require replacement of mechanical and electrical systems approximately every 25 years. Creative, cost-effective re-use of existing buildings is the most sustainable strategy for campus augmentation.

As a redevelopment strategy, adaptive reuse of existing building stock can contribute greatly to the harmonious resolution of campus edge and “town-and-gown” boundaries. Often campuses are bounded by Historic Districts, and can benefit from a complementary approach to Master Planning, building renovations, and infill projects.

An existing commercial structure is adapted for academic use


Adaptive reuse is, at its core, an opportunity for any project to transform campus context in a powerful way. Reuse of original buildings creates a powerful narrative of progress while maintaining a strong sense of history and place.

Additions are conceived to activate aging original structures using both contrast and context . The new design must transform the building, it’s context and it’s amenities, into a recognizable identity. Embracing innovation in educational programming inspires façade design, and open learning environments visible from the interior and the exterior, which create a new recognizable image, even in historical contexts. One can envision renovations on campus complimenting the newest digital teaching and learning spaces. Handled correctly, “old” buildings rejuvenated provide new gathering spaces where students, and faculty, can pause and interact together. This interactivity is a crucial component of college and university environments. Adaptive re-use can at once be part of the greater campus context, while creating new destinations.

One of the most sustainable strategic decisions an institution can make is promoting adaptive re-use of existing land and facilities. The Architect’s challenge is to discover the strengths and weaknesses in the existing and create the greatest transformation for the best value. In essence, the new design seeks to simultaneously enhance the College or University’s image while creating a new and exciting academic environment.

Written by David McIlnay