Extending the life of existing structures can significantly reduce embodied carbon, compared to new construction.

Changing the uses of buildings to meet market demand and continued function.

Implementing changes to improve building efficiency, performance, or resource use.

Adding to a building’s existing footprint to increase functionality while maintaining the original structure.

Leveraging design to shift a building’s public or market presence.

Bringing multiple existing buildings together to form a combined, high performance property.

Reusing existing structures — rather than building anew — usually results in lower environmental impact. Studies show that the additional operating efficiency, even of a high-performance building, can take up to 80 years to make up for the impact of having built it in the first place. Therefore, replacing an existing building should only occur if it cannot be adapted effectively or if the building that replaces it has sufficiently higher energy performance to quickly counterbalance the material loss.

For buildings that cannot be adapted easily or have no cultural or historic value, salvaging and repurposing the materials can prevent unnecessary waste. Deconstruction, rather than demolition, often saves 95% of a building’s materials. In many older European cities, materials have upcycled through buildings for centuries. Encouraging this sort of reuse globally can have a huge impact; according to the U.S. Environmental Protect Agency (EPA), the American built environment creates over half a billion tons of debris annually — 90% of this stems from demolition.

A group of people in a large building.
Repurposing an industrial complex to create a unified campus.
The design proposal for 888 North Douglas for Hackman Capital Partners rehabilitates a 550,000-square-foot site comprised of four warehouse and manufacturing buildings while preserving original industrial details such as catwalks, railway corridors, high bays, manufacturing cranes, and sawtooth skylights.
According to the EPA, the American built environment creates over half a billion tons of debris annually — 90% of this stems from demolition.

The flexible design of new buildings can also extend a structure’s lifespan with an enhanced ability to easily adapt to various uses. Using a standard size grid and relatively open floor plan will help projects adapt to varied future functions without much demolition. The cast-iron loft buildings of New York’s SoHo neighborhood have been continually adapted for 150 years because of their beauty and flexibility. Preserving these structures conserves the embodied energy of the material while also reinforcing the cultural heritage of the neighborhood.


In Impact by Design 2020 we introduce Strategies for Climate Resilience: a collection of six major areas that have the greatest potential for positive climate impact in the coming years.