Adaptive Reuse

Issues Addressed:
Housing Costs Housing Options Infrastructure Redevelopment Sustainable Housing

What is it?

“Adaptive reuse” or “adaptive use” is the practice of reusing old buildings for new purposes. While people have always adapted their buildings to meet the needs of the moment, the contemporary architectural practice and term “adaptive reuse” emerged in the 1970s and 1980s in response to the demolition of historical buildings during the era of urban renewal. 

While, in theory, many types of buildings can be adapted for new uses, in practice adaptive reuse most often occurs in pre-World-War-II industrial buildings (like factories, mills, and power plants) and institutional buildings (like hospitals, schools, and houses of worship). The durability of pre-war construction and the dimensions of such buildings make them more amenable to adaptive reuse compared to post-war buildings. Often these older buildings are well suited for housing.

While adaptive reuse is a great way to add new housing, revitalize vacant buildings, increase local tax revenue, and reduce the energy used for new construction, adaptive reuse projects are typically more complex than new greenfield development.

How can it help?

Adaptive reuse can…

  • Provide new housing in existing communities.
  • Provide a wider range of home types than conventional development.
  • Create opportunities for mixed-use development.
  • Preserve local heritage and sense of place and history.
  • Eliminate the negative impacts of empty buildings and vacant lots.
  • Increase the value of and tax revenue generated by older buildings.
  • Spur economic development in disadvantaged areas.
  • Remediate sites contaminated with hazardous industrial materials.
  • Save on costs for construction (if the site does not require extensive cleanup).
  • Reduce the embodied carbon footprint of new housing.
  • Reduce demand for greenfield housing development, thus preserving open spaces. 
  • Take advantage of current infrastructure capacity, rather than creating the need for new infrastructure.

Getting Started

  1. Recognize and promote adaptive reuse’s impact on common master plan goals, such as historic preservation, economic development, open space preservation, and increased housing options.
  2. If undertaking a master plan, include adaptive reuse as a recommendation.
  3. Consult any other plans, including urban renewal plans, to learn if other sites have already been identified for adaptive reuse or redevelopment. If so, find out what barriers to redevelopment have been previously identified.
  4. Inventory existing buildings and sites that would be appropriate for adaptive reuse. This could include historic mill complexes, power plants, factories, schools, hospitals, churches, retail malls, or other sites.
  5. Where possible, talk to property owners to gauge interest in redevelopment or selling their property for that purpose. If the property owner has already considered redevelopment, determine what factors have shaped their decisions.
  6. Reach out to and build relationships with property developers who specialize in adaptive reuse. Talk to them about the typical impediments they face in their projects.
  7. Conduct an audit of your city or town’s regulations to find impediments to reuse of existing buildings. Your audit should include zoning (use, parking, and dimensional rules), site design regulations, any local amendments to the state building code, conservation requirements, and any other regulations relevant to your conversations with property owners and developers. Identify barriers to adaptive reuse.
  8. Propose amendments to local regulations that would make adaptive reuse viable in your community. Building, zoning, and site design regulations should be flexible enough to make projects workable on constrained sites.
  9. Build public awareness of preservation needs and adaptive reuse potential.
    1. Use public forums, outreach to local boards and committees, and other engagement methods to grow awareness. 
    2. Use visuals to illustrate what adaptive reuse would look like at specific sites.
  10. Introduce and encourage partnerships between property owners and potential developers.
  11. Work with private consultants and/or the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services to assess environmental remediation needs on viable sites.
  12. Where necessary, identify sources of funding for environmental remediation, including local sources, NH DES grants and loans, or US EPA funds.


  • Public investment in infrastructure or environmental clean-up can spur private investment in building rehabilitation.
  • Brownfield assessments and cleanups can be facilitated by NH Department of Environmental Services and US Environmental Protection Agency grants and loans.
  • For identified sites, ensure housing is allowed by-right following administrative review.
  • Larger projects benefit from a mix of uses. Leading development with retail, restaurant, and/or cultural institutions can help spur interest in reuse of other buildings/sites nearby.
  • When allowing non-residential uses, ensure residential uses are prioritized through zoning incentives and/or restrictions.
  • The 2018 International Existing Building Code (IEBC) has been adopted by the State and specifies guidance and requirements for adaptive reuse projects. Your community’s building inspectors (if you have them) should be trained in this code. Communities without a local building code enforcement system can request the State Bureau of Building Safety & Construction Engineering & Plan Review Section inspect construction projects.
  • (Re)branding a specific site or historic area may help increase interest in adaptive reuse.