Story at a glance:

  • The US is short on affordable housing by nearly seven million homes.
  • Adaptive reuse could fill this gap as thousands of buildings around the country go unused.
  • Adaptive reuse housing can provide affordable options to communities in need.

US cities need more housing—especially affordable housing. The US has a shortage of 6.8 million rental homes that are affordable and available to extremely low-income renters, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition.

The demand for affordable housing is outpacing supply nationwide, with new multi-family units renting at prices cost-prohibitive for middle- and low-income renters, according to a previous gb&d article from Think Wood. Nearly two-thirds of renters across the US say they can’t afford to buy a home, and saving for a down payment is out of reach when home prices are rising at twice the rate of wage growth.

So how can we solve this housing shortage problem? One solution could be adaptive reuse.

Across the US, a wide variety of structures are underused, abandoned, or functionally obsolete. The US government alone owned about 45,000 of them in 2014, according to The Economist.

Adaptive housing is a more sustainable solution than building new and makes use of what we already have. The EPA estimated that 600 million tons of construction and demolition debris were generated in the US in 2018. Repurposing buildings and converting them can help alleviate some of the waste typically produced by the construction industry.

Here are some prime examples of adaptive reuse projects that are changing the affordable housing landscape.

1. Turtle Bay Towers, New York City, NY

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Photo courtesy of RKTB Architects

The adaptive reuse of Turtle Bay Towers was unprecedented when the project was completed in the 1970s. The New York City project, completed in 1978, was originally a 26-story loft building built in 1929. Turtle Bay Towers was being used for offices and light manufacturing when an explosion funneled up the elevator shafts in 1974, blowing out a 50-foot-wide section of the brick facade from street level to the top story. A young group of architects, now known as RKTB Architects, was tasked with reinventing the building.

“The entire project was a challenge, since nothing like it had been attempted,” Carmi Bee, principal in charge of design with RKTB Architects, told gb&d. “The project was one of the first for developer Rockrose Residential, now a major name in New York luxury rentals. It took some courage for them to create Turtle Bay Towers and invest in an untested idea, although the location certainly helped (Midtown East near the United Nations).”

RKTB was able to redevelop the square footage of the elevator shaft and transfer it to the setbacks on the higher floors of the wedding cake-style building, which they enclosed in greenhouse-style windows. By converting the elevators to passenger use and cutting away the demolished shafts, the design provided a street-level courtyard that opened up a full 200-foot height of the west wall of apartments to natural light. This change decreased the building’s total volume, and zoning regulations permitted this lost space to be regained in the form of those greenhouse windows.

“Adaptive reuse is smart and sustainable thinking, and office buildings represent an opportunity to address a major housing gap today,” Bee says. “Post-COVID it’s not at all certain that these commercial spaces will fill up with new leaseholders, especially as much of the existing stock lacks the infrastructure needed to support the activities and workflow of the high-tech companies most likely to sign big new leases.”

2. Star Apartments, Downtown Los Angeles, CA

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Star Apartments. Photo by Iwan Baan/Michael Maltzan Architecture

Star Apartments in LA is a six-story, 95,000-square-foot affordable housing project. The development is built over an existing one-story structure and is home to more than 100 formerly homeless residents. Designed by project architect Michael Maltzan, an alum of Gehry Partners, the stacked, sculptural form levitates above the street.

The design team says the new Star Apartments sets a new model for urbanism and increased density by adding new community spaces and residential levels above. Its unique form is an inventive solution to building residential units over an existing ground floor structure. The project’s bold layout consists of four terraced floors of residences, along with community and public health facilities including a 15,000-square-foot Health and Wellness Center.

Maltzan was able to build on the existing ground floor by using a lighter weight prefabricated wood system. “We needed to devise a model for another kind of urban space. Prefab emerged as the most direct and efficient approach, addressing issues from technical and financial to social and urban,” Maltzan said in a previous article for gb&d. This lower cost option allowed for savings within the project’s budget and afforded higher quality materials for the interior design of the apartments.

3. Great Scott Trio, Portland, OR

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Great Scott Trio. Rendering courtesy of Guerilla Architecture

Great Scott Trio is a four-story mixed-use building in Portland. The proposed development will consist of an existing single-story 10,000-square-foot building with a spacious 8,800-square-foot parking lot. Developer Kevin Cavenaugh and his firm Guerrilla Development are planning a four-story housing-over-retail building on the parking lot, leaving an outdoor dining/drinking patio between the two buildings.

The existing building will contain a brewpub/restaurant anchor, along with a small wine bar, and retail space. The new building’s 40 apartments will be 100% affordable, rented at 60% of median family income. There will also be a number of apartments held aside for 18-year-olds aging out of Oregon’s foster care program.

“My goal is to design as sexy a building as possible at the best price. We have gotten good at that here at Guerilla. And when it comes to building materials, I never have considered anything but wood. I haven’t found anything that comes close to wood for the price, flexibility, and rapid renewability,” Cavenaugh says.

Using light-frame construction, the simple-but-clever design overcomes affordability challenges by doing more with less, which includes keeping all the common areas open and unheated. This also offers passive natural ventilation and cooling. The project’s renderings envision solar power on the roof and cistern for collecting rainwater.

4. DADA Distrikt, Brno, Czech Republic

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Photo by Qualibau

The US isn’t the only place where affordable housing is important. The Czech Republic has some of the highest real estate prices in Europe, but a team of architects at KOGAA developed an option for affordable housing in Brno. Called DADA Distrikt, the former storage facility is now a mixed-use and residential complex.

KOGAA carefully considers each adaptive reuse project and, in the case of DADA Distrikt, the team was inspired by the building’s history, working with a decorative accent on the facade. Designed as a shell-and-core, the main load-bearing structure has been cleaned up to its most elementary and strongest form.

“The most impressive thing about DADA Distrikt is its unique proposition to the problem with real estate prices in the country,” KOGAA cofounder Alexandra Georgescu previously told gb&d. “The local market lacks affordable housing and therefore calls for alternative development solutions that would also be able to strengthen the quality of public spaces. It’s relatively economical reconstruction was made possible through shared funding and direct sales, therefore avoiding additional investment returns to developers and fees to real estate agencies.”

5. Tiger Senior Apartments, Paris, IL

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Tiger Senior Apartments. Photo by J.L. Jordan Photography

An old high school in Paris, Illinois was converted to affordable senior housing by Worn Jerabek Wiltse Architects (WJW). Originally constructed in 1909, the high school was expanded in 1922 and served continuously as Paris’ only high school until 2015, when a new high school was built at the edge of town.

The Tiger Senior Apartments project offers 42 apartments for low-income seniors, with 100% of the units designated as affordable housing either at 60% or 30% of AMI. The former high school retains its original gymnasium and auditorium spaces, offering activity and gathering spaces for residents.

Part of the challenge with this project was conserving the historic building as much as possible. “The historic preservation requirements imposed by NPS and SHPO created several hurdles to navigate in order to reach our sustainability goals, yet they also afforded us unique opportunities for a higher level of sustainability than would have been achieved with a new construction building,” Heidi Wang, a partner at WJW, previously told gb&d.

Although the renovation faced many challenges, from refinishing existing hardwood and bringing it up to the standards of the NGBS to preserving historic windows, the project was able to maintain historic character and innovative sustainable changes.

Architects were able to reuse the existing shell and structural systems as well as a high percentage of the interior materials and finishes. This included existing plaster wall and ceiling finishes, floor material including terrazzo and wood flooring, wood trim, tin ceilings, interior wood doors, lockers, and historic millwork. This high level of reuse allowed the project to retain all of the embodied energy present in the historic materials, as well as a sense of historic richness.

The converted building offers sustainable features that fit easily within the historic framework, including all-electric equipment with no use of natural gas, low-flow water fixtures throughout, and 100% LED lighting. The project incorporated universal design elements that enhanced accessibility.

6. La Peninsula, Hunts Point, NY

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La Peninsula in Hunts Point, NY is a mixed-use complex that has the community in mind. Photo courtesy of Body Lawson Associates

Body Lawson Associates is reimagining a former juvenile detention center for mixed commercial, education, wellness, light industrial, retail, parking, and residential uses with plentiful open space and a new public plaza.

La Peninsula in Hunts Point is a mixed-use complex on almost five acres with six buildings being built in three phases through 2024. The project includes 170,000 square feet of light industrial space for business opportunities, a film production studio, community facilities, and ground-floor arts and retail spaces. Development and planning came about through a collaborative process involving a range of representative city leaders and agencies. Once completed, the complex will feature an urban health center, a bank, a brewery, a grocery store, and ample outdoor space. The playful facade patterning and materials palette reference the surrounding architectural context.

“It’s a project that will change a lot of lives. It will make the community a much more powerful neighborhood,” says Victor Body-Lawson, principal architect and founder of Body Lawson Associates. “We feel like when you give people more, they become stronger at the end. When they live in that building, it acts as the vessel that moves them from one stage to the other.”