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Combining Innovation and History Through Adaptive Reuse




Communities and developers have much to gain from reviving old architecture. Graceful adaptive reuse of a building preserves symbols of a culture’s evolution and historical charm, keeping a city’s atmosphere familiar and welcoming.

In the 1960s, urban activist Jane Jacobs published a revolutionary book discussing the economic advantages that certain types of businesses have when located in older buildings. It was her belief that “old ideas can sometimes use new buildings, but new ideas must use old buildings.” Keeping bits of the old makes innovation less frightening for those wary of change. A building is a part of a community’s tangible past, a strong-rooted anchor that makes a walk around town pleasant for both locals and travelers. 

Adaptive Reuse

Rehabilitation and adaptive reuse is the process through which a historical building is prepared for contemporary use while retaining its cultural value. This is beneficial particularly in urban cores, where it eliminates urban decay—the process by which a previously functioning city falls into decrepitude—and, on the other end of the spectrum, avoids a transformation that leaves a city unrecognizable. 


Ponāvka Business Park in downtown Brno.

Adaptive reuse is different from restoration or preservation; it does not restore the building to the original state, but, rather, it fully transforms the building’s purpose to meet the demands of today’s needs. This adaption often only slightly alters the unique exterior of past architecture, and there are ways to preserve hints of the original interior as well. Certain elements in older buildings are irreplaceable: sculpted stone, elaborate masonry, vaulted ceilings, carved wood – all very expensive in the modern age. Because labour was once much cheaper than today, historical structures were often built with greater attention to detail, and it is a shame to destroy what cannot be replicated.

When to Preserve the Old

So when does adaptive reuse make sense compared to constructing a fresh space? There are many factors to consider: cultural distinction, location, aesthetics, expense, and expectations, to name a few. Even when demand requires new space, old buildings can still benefit the cause.

CTP’s primary focus is on new construction that strikes a balance between functionality and aesthetics. Naturally, this means preserving the essence of a location’s history may be tricky, but it remains crucial. The intent is never to take away; it is to add, and to improve; to reinvigorate. Successful adaptive reuse can be seen at Ponāvka, CTP's unique business park in downtown Brno, which combines modern hi-tech offices with stylishly renovated historic buildings and naturally landscaped gardens, bicycle paths, and the tree-lined banks of the Ponāvka stream. The studios at Ponāvka are refurbished historic properties ideal for showrooms, start-ups, and creative teams. What was once a 19th-century starch factory grounds, has been transformed to fit the trendy, dynamic lifestyle of young professionals, and is now a campus-like, welcoming working environment that has retained part of the historical ‘workplace’ legacy.

Vlněna, one of CTP's new ventures, is positioned closer to the historical centre of Brno. While the site plan focuses on flexible, modern buildings, the sense of history will remain thanks to the adaptive reuse of ‘Bochner Palace’, which celebrated 150 years in 2017. Built by Josef Arnold in 1867, the new-renaissance palace will be updated to suit smaller operations, such as legal or consulting services. Originally the HQ of the sprawling Vlněna cloth manufacturing plant, the updated HQ creates a link to the city’s once-massive manufacturing heritage.

Deciding to incorporate an old building should be about more than saving money or saving time—which is usually not the case when adapting an older building. A developer must understand the benefits, and how to work with—not against or despite—the building. The post-modification result of adaptive reuse must also match the goals of the new development plan, and the goals must be in tune with more stringent, modern environmental demands.

When it comes to cost-benefit analysis, it should involve more than the standard budget comparison between demolition and restoration. Marketability’s worth can outweigh many negatives. For instance, a space with a rich history—whether due to an occupant, an event, or even legends and myths—has great marketing value. 

How It’s Done

When planning the best approach to adaptive reuse, experts must procure and inspect the building’s previous repair history. This will determine which areas are of the highest concern and therefore require the most attention. A strong team of professionals—owner, designer, restoration contractor, possibly a historic conservator or local preservation office—can then prepare accordingly. 

The "Envelope"
In adaptive-reuse projects, the building “envelope” (the roof, windows, doors, and the above-grade and below-grade wall systems) can be completely replaced, salvaged, preserved, or restored. A complete condition assessment by a design professional is paramount when determining the proper adaptation approach. These professionals review the useable life and anticipated replacement value of each component, maintenance history of the systems, previous major capital projects, aesthetic design desires, and the impact on the existing structure. Conclusions stem from a thorough understanding of what can be done to enhance the performance, yet also minimize the impact on the finished aesthetic.

The structural integrity of the building must also be inspected, and full comprehension of the future use of the space must be taken into consideration. Will the structure experience new loads? Are structural modifications necessary? Will there be new openings (doors, vents etc.)? What will be the impact of mechanical systems? Adaptive reuse often requires interiors to be gutted, with new designs and materials replacing the old to suit the new usage requirements. This may require innovative structural strengthening solutions, which frequently evolve as the project takes on its final form.

The mechanical requirements must be reviewed in depth as well. Strategies for energy use and indoor air quality significantly shape the final product; new insulation means new venting for moisture control, for example. When it comes to new mechanical systems, building dimensions may limit the possible vertical and horizontal ducts, the area may be lacking space, or the roof may require additional support. To ensure everything is handled property, the architect must work together with mechanical and electrical engineers—and other experts needed for necessary inspection—from the very beginning. 

Why We Love ‘Em
A historical building can represent something resilient, strong enough to survive. It is distinct, with curves and angles that architects long abandoned for financial, practical, or other reasons. Because those strange shapes belong to times past, today we can appreciate both the good and the bad in their story.