Beyond Reduce, Reuse, Recycle

Circular economy strategies for adaptive reuse of cultural heritage buildings can reduce environmental impacts

By Kendall Morgan, PhD - June 29, 2020  11 mins
The Hyatt Hotel in Vienna is housed in the former Bank Austria building

Atlas trophy and logoEach month, the Elsevier Atlas Award recognizes research that could significantly impact people's lives around the world. February 2020 award goes to two articles that explore responsible production and consumption:

Gillian Foster for her January 2020 article in Resources, Conservation & Recycling: Circular economy strategies for adaptive reuse of cultural heritage buildings to reduce environmental impacts.

And Ane Irizar-Arrieta, Diego Casado-Mansilla, Pablo Garaizar, Diego López-de-Ipiña and Aiur Retegi for their May 2020 article in the International Journal of Human-Computer Studies: “User perspectives in the design of interactive everyday objects for sustainable behaviour

Many of us are used to thinking about ways to reduce, reuse, and recycle materials (the 3 Rs) in our everyday lives. Now, an Atlas-award winning article is encouraging city planners and city dwellers to apply circular practices that go beyond the 3 Rs to those that keep buildings and their parts in use longer and aim to reduce materials and energy used. These strategies encourage the use and reuse of cultural heritage buildings. The article was chosen to highlight the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goal 12: to ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns.

“Resourceful and innovative approaches for the built environment in general and existing buildings in particular are key to accomplishing future sustainability,” writes Gillian Foster, of the Institute for Ecological Economics at the Vienna University of Economics and Business. “Urban cultural heritage buildings are of particular interest because they may be underutilized or abandoned.”

Foster has a long interest in improving environmental outcomes. She recognized the importance of environmental considerations for people living in urban environments at a time when more than half of the world’s population live in cities.  The operation and construction of buildings account for about 40 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions. Foster also saw a major challenge in adaptive reuse within urban environments: a lack of information about how to do it.

To help fill that gap in the article reported in the journal Resources, Conservation & Recycling, Foster synthesized the available literature to produce a comprehensive circular economy framework for buildings and construction. Circular economy refers to strategies to reduce the total resources extracted from the environment and reduce waste with the ultimate goal to improve wellbeing for people and the planet.

As Foster explains, her framework aggregates and synthesizes information and ideas from disparate sources to develop a new tool. Her hope is that it may be used for “setting strategy, assessment of projects, assessment of government policies, and awareness raising.”

Her research took place in four steps: 1) conducting a literature review; 2) selecting a circular economy framework; 3) defining the life cycle of buildings; and 4) synthesizing specific interventions that help to reduce material use. The resulting framework is intended to help planners brainstorm and gauge the level of circularity of a given project. It can also be used for decision making such as municipal procurement.

At the top level, a building rehabilitation could be designed so as to require little new raw materials. At lower levels, there could be efforts to incorporate salvage materials or otherwise repurpose components of old products. If project participants determined that a project didn’t meet the desired level of circularity, the framework could be applied for identifying additional strategies to improve those measures.

Foster built the conceptual framework while recognizing that when it comes to the reuse of cultural heritage buildings, whether they may be churches or factories, each situation will be unique. As a result, she writes, “a universal solution is impossible.” Sometimes particular goals, such as increasing green space and maximizing space utilization may be in conflict with one another, she adds.

While the details of increasing adaptive reuse of cultural heritage buildings may be challenging and complex in practice, the ultimate goal—to extend the useful lifespan of buildings and building materials for the benefit of the environment and of society—is rather simple. And, those of us at home can apply the same circular economy framework and strategies for making more thoughtful decisions about the way our own households operate as well.

A Conversation with Gillian Foster


I talked with Gillian Foster about circular economy strategies for adaptive reuse of cultural heritage buildings as a means to reduce environmental impacts.  podcastListen now.

What is meant by "circular economy"?

Gillian Foster: There are many definitions and descriptions. The simplest way to explain it from an environmental standpoint is to slow down the throughput of energy and materials for human use and reduce consumption. It’s a sustainability concept, so it has to be within a structure where we’re meeting human needs but are respecting the larger ecosystem. Here it’s about existing buildings including cultural heritage buildings. At the highest level, it’s about designing away the need for using new materials. It’s not just recycling materials, but also reducing the need for materials.

What got you interested in circular economy and adaptive reuse in the context of cultural heritage buildings now?

Gillian Foster: My entire working life has been focused on improving environmental outcomes and I always wanted to do that in a practical way that affected people and what people were doing. Right now there are huge trends in urbanization. More people live in urban areas than anywhere else and that will continue as a trend. As time goes by we will have more cultural heritage sites. It’s important to think about buildings because they are so energy and material intensive in their construction and use. A major source of carbon dioxide gasses in the atmosphere is the building and construction industry. It all comes together for me. It’s an important area to put your focus in terms of cultural heritage. All communities have sites and buildings that make a community what it is. It’s part of the fabric of everyday life. And, it doesn’t always mean museums or the Parthenon. The design and use and how structures are laid out in landscape really reflects the culture all over the world and that’s something to cherish.

What are the primary advantages of this kind of adaptive reuse?

Gillian Foster: There’s the common adage, “Waste not, want not,” and in today’s age we’re looking at ways of reducing waste. When rehabilitating a building, you can improve energy efficiency. You can rescue materials from being extracted from nature and the energy used to process those into materials. You’ve captured the embodied energy that’s there. If you tore it down, you’d have to expend new energy with implications for more greenhouse gases emitted. If instead you are using the same building with modifications then you are getting all of these great environmental benefits and meanwhile often revitalizing communities. You have sites that are meaningful to communities so it can have other uses that still maintain the cultural heritage values of the structures.

What are the challenges in doing this?

Gillian Foster: I think the big challenge is the lack of information for all participants in adaptive reuse. For example, this type of work from a cultural preservation perspective is quite specialized. It’s a skill set that a limited number of architects and experts have. These projects are often not handled only by specialists but also by people doing government procurement, neighbors, owners, and community organizations. There are many people who have interests in what happens to an urban landscape including old factories, let’s say. It doesn’t have to be what someone might consider beautiful that is worthy and important to community heritage and culture. So this article isn’t only for those with specialized skills. It’s meant to explain circular economy to a wide array of participants and what that means for adaptive reuse. For example, there are 46 strategies in the framework. It’s a way to understand environmental circularity and strategies and to implement and find ways to assess the level of circularity that’s reached by a given project.

How did you set out to help address and put together a framework for people to get started?

Gillian Foster: I wanted to put myself in the shoes of people doing this work at any phase of a project. It could be design or where building materials are sourced or where raw materials are extracted. We have to remember that some building projects are so big that the glass isn’t manufactured until the design sets the type and scope of glass. The materials literally exist in nature before the design is developed and then built. We don’t see this as a linear you take, use, and throw it away. For circular economy, you can be at any stage in a building’s life cycle. In any phase, there are strategies you can approach and implement that achieve certain levels of circularity. I really appreciated the cascade model. It fits well with a building life cycle framework. You have increasing circularity, which I labeled smarter building use and maintenance and then expanding the life span of a building or its useful application of materials. Higher levels are achieved by designing out the need for new materials and resources and basically using buildings better.

Are there places where this is already happening that might serve as good models?

Gillian Foster: That’s a hard question. At first, I’d like to say that cultural heritage is a human phenomenon. So it exists everywhere. Every community has something from the past that’s important and that they want to pass on. So it’s a global concept. Here in Europe as one example there are several interesting adaptive reuses. I live in Vienna where there’s a wealth of culture and two I find interesting are not really what you might expect—it’s not an opera house or palace—but one incredible reuse is called The Gasometer. It was a former natural gas warehouse with three huge tanks. They were the largest of their kind in Europe at the time they were built. They were a technological marvel at the time and they maintained the gas supply for the city. In later years, this use was no longer needed but the structures were there and were rebuilt into a city within a city. There are apartments and entertainment venues in former gas tanks. Another one is the aquarium here that just went through another rehabilitation. It is a former military installation. One might have wondered if you could call it a building when it was first built. But it is an important part of the fabric of urban landscape. It now has an urban park surrounding it and climbing walls. It has many uses. One would have never called that structure beautiful, but it certainly has important history and culture, and it has grown in its utility for the community around it over time.

Yes, I live in Durham, North Carolina, and we have a lot of old tobacco warehouses that sat for quite a while. They were full of bats at one time. Now they are places to live and restaurants and offices in what were old tobacco warehouses.

Gillian Foster: Yeah that’s exactly the type of thing I’m talking about. They weren’t full of Greek columns, but they are really important to where they are and we should use those again.

What needs to happen now to encourage and support more of this?

Gillian Foster: I think that there’s a lot of policy interest in circular economy. There’s a circular city movement in many places, and I believe that it will be good if existing buildings, particularly those with cultural heritage are maintained and somehow supported through policies at local, national, and perhaps regional levels.

What can members of the general public do to encourage this in their own communities?

Gillian Foster: Yes, I think that people can value these sites and movements by being willing to live in them, being willing to help finance them, being willing to value the old wood floors or structures around. People make decisions all the time in their daily lives. For example, you could refurbish your shutters on your windows instead of putting in an air conditioning unit. You might have the same result in terms of comfort in a historic building. There are many ways to explore how to use what we have more effectively.

Related Resources

About Resources, Conservation & Recycling

Resources, Conservation & Recycling welcomes contributions from research, which consider sustainable management and conservation of resources. The journal emphasizes the transformation processes involved in a transition toward more sustainable production and consumption systems. Emphasis is upon technological, economic, institutional and policy aspects of specific resource management practices, such as conservation, recycling and resource substitution, and of "systems-wide" strategies, such as resource productivity improvement, the restructuring of production and consumption profiles and the transformation of industry.

Written by

Kendall Morgan, PhD

Written by

Kendall Morgan, PhD

Kendall Morgan, PhD, is a scientist turned science writer via the Science Communication Program at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Her work has been featured in publications including Big Science Media's Genome, Cancer Today, The Scientist, Science News, Science Now, and by organizations including Addgene and the Life Sciences Foundation. She lives in Durham, NC.

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