Future of Design January 15, 2024

5 ways an evolving market is compelling owners and developers to rethink their existing real estate

Recent changes in the market are placing more emphasis on converting old buildings into new uses, a practice also known as adaptive reuse, or repurposing. Communities are now seeing value in preserving the historical character of their neighborhoods, while the cost savings that can come from reusing existing buildings also has strong appeal. This is true even for high-tech programs like life sciences laboratories; in fact, there are now several examples of labs that have been successfully inserted into old building stock.

Here’s how the practice of repurposing is changing.
01. Repurposing is becoming a faster and more cost-effective solution than new construction, particularly in dense urban areas.
While the complex, often messy work of repurposing was once considered a costly liability, the market is now showing that it’s much more time-efficient and much less expensive than starting from scratch.

“In an urban environment, to take a building down and put another in its place—the time and money would be astronomical,” says Matthew Malone, senior vice president of life sciences at New York City-based real estate development company Taconic Partners. Taconic subsidiary Elevate Research Properties is solely focused on life sciences development. The company’s recent repurposing projects include West End Labs on the Upper West Side, Iron Horse Labs on the Upper East Side, and Hudson Research Center, a former Warner Brothers processing facility turned life sciences lab and office space in Midtown Manhattan. In the latter project, Malone says that repurposing the existing building saved Taconic 18 months to two years on the project timeline. The process can be complex, he notes, but with the right partners, it’s worth it. “You have to go in with eyes wide open. Every building is unique.”

Hudson Research Center (Photo: Garrett Rowland)
02. Reusing old buildings no longer means sacrificing flexibility or newness.
The old mechanicals, heavy column grids, and fixed ceiling heights of historic buildings can make introducing new uses challenging—especially if the new use is a life science lab requiring robust mechanical systems.

But experienced designers can develop solutions for inserting even the most high-tech programs within existing shells. At Innolabs, a space for companies in Queens, New York, architects added about 120,000 square feet of flexible space to an existing building. Passenger elevators were relocated into the new construction, allowing the original building’s central floors to be laid out as single, two-tenant, and three-tenant leasing options. Interior walls can be shifted to tailor the spaces to individual tenant needs and mechanical shafts are distributed across the floorplates to enhance future flexibility. “We synthesized the new components with the old and made something that works both aesthetically and functionally,” says Ed Jaram, senior director at King Street Properties, which developed Innolabs. “The flexibility between different tenant styles and sizes is key.”

Innolabs (Photo: Chris Cooper)
03. Spaces around existing buildings increase flexibility and engage the community.
Repurposing is usually associated with buildings themselves, but the spaces around them provide opportunities, as well.

At Davis Square Plaza in Somerville, Massachusetts, the conversion of historic buildings into a mixed-use development of life sciences labs and retail is transforming an underused plaza into a vibrant public space. The design features new trees, textured paving, urban furniture, and elegant lighting that will make the previously barren stretch running between two buildings a place where neighbors meet and the community gathers. “It had all the potential to be an urban plaza that was perfectly proportioned, and in a neighborhood that really needed community activation,” says Boston-based architect and urban designer Ryan Kurlbaum. Such civic building efforts, notes Kurlbaum, are wanted by virtually all tenants, not to mention the neighbors. “We get great feedback on these types of spaces across the board,” he says.

Davis Square Plaza
04. Old suburban office campuses, generally considered obsolete, are rife with opportunity for visionaries.
Suburban office parks have been in decline for some time, but now the pendulum is starting to swing in their direction.

The pandemic saw a return to the suburbs, and savvy developers seized opportunities to reuse these often-dormant developments. Boston Properties’ recent revamp of 191 Spring Street in Lexington, Massachusetts is a case in point. The developer’s repurposing strategy involved updating the building while also injecting a bit of urban vibrancy into its surroundings: Designers replaced the aging building’s facade with a new glass curtain wall that admits more daylight, but left the building’s structural concrete walls exposed inside, creating texture and variation. They also added a new roof deck that offers views of the city above the tree canopy, and re-imagined the landscape as an inviting place that has become a popular hangout. “A sense of place, a sense of community, is critical,” says Jaram. “It’s much more art than it is science, but you’ve got to figure out what combination of uses is going to achieve that.”

191 Spring Street (Photo: Anton Grassl)
05. Repurposing offers a pathway to decarbonization and looks great in an ESG report.
In a 2022 report, McKinsey calls out decarbonizing real estate assets and portfolios as one of three actions that are necessary to thrive in the era of climate change. (The other two are accounting for climate risks in asset and portfolio valuations, and creating new sources of value and revenue through measures like on-site energy generation and storage.)

Decarbonization also helps developers bolster their ESG (environmental, social, and governance) efforts, which is increasingly important to investors. Repurposing offers a leg-up on the journey to a decarbonized built environment. First, reusing an existing structure reduces embodied carbon from new building materials. Second, the time and cost savings associated with it can be reinvested in highly sustainable mechanical, lighting, plumbing, and other systems to bring the project up to current performance standards. The labs in Davis Square Plaza, for instance, are aiming for LEED Platinum certification, while Innolabs and 191 Spring are both LEED Gold. These ratings are partly the result of reuse, partly the result of new energy-efficient technology.

“The biggest knock on repurposing is the buildings themselves were not built to the same energy efficiencies as modern infrastructure,” Malone says. “What we’re doing is introducing new systems—like air source heat pumps—that are taking the negative stigma about retrofits not being able to perform out of the equation. Reusing an existing building saves more resources than any other means of building. It already has carbon capture associated with it because you don’t need to introduce new materials.”

"Reusing an existing building saves more resources than any other means of building. It already has carbon capture associated with it because you don’t need to introduce new materials."
Matthew Malone, Senior Vice President of Life Sciences, Taconic Partners