The untapped opportunities of adaptive reuse

The untapped opportunities of adaptive reuse
CGI Render for Proposal at Myrtle Street, North Sydney. Conversion of a three-storey commercial office into a four-storey mixed use commercial and residential development.
Nicholas FaillaJuly 23, 2020


Navigating the planning system in New South Wales can often seem like a tedious problem. At a local level, development applications are governed by a seemingly endless list of statutes, frameworks, guidelines, and advisory notes. Adding onto this burden the issue of heritage and suddenly, the odds of doing any form of adaptation or alteration to a building can, on the surface, seem like an insurmountable challenge. 

Yet lying underneath this mountain of legislation is a wealth of untapped opportunities around heritage adaptation which offers flexibility and a chance to develop projects which would otherwise not be possible. By bringing in both planning and heritage expertise in-house as architects, we can engage in a close exploration of how architecture can work coherently and concurrently with the plethora of planning legislation, using heritage buildings as a gateway to provide new opportunities which deliver positive outcomes for development and the local community. 

These opportunities recognise that the idea of heritage preservation is not an end in itself and in fact, as the historian David Lowenthal reminds us, “‘preserve’ also carries with it the meaning of ‘pre-serve’. It is an act that preceded some aim to be served through it. Preservation is not action or epilogue; it is only prologue.” When we begin to look at heritage buildings from this perspective of pre-serve prologue, what we find is a wide array of opportunities for adaptive reuse, and the chance to give new life to old structures in the very heart of our city.

Planning for adaptation

The potential for heritage items to lead new lives is embodied in the provisions under Clause 5.10(10) of the Local Environmental Plan (LEP) which states that,“...The consent authority may grant consent to develop for any purpose of a building that is a heritage item…even though development for that purpose would otherwise not be allowed…” 

The threshold test for activating this incentive is to ensure that the conservation is “facilitated by the granting of consent” meaning that whilst an opportunity is offered to repurpose a heritage building, it is also balanced with the responsibility for any potential development to also adequately manage the item. This clause, therefore, gives credence to the principle of adaptive reuse by enabling potential alternative functions to be explored and implemented whilst also ensuring that a historic building is maintained and enhanced. 

Alternatively, some councils in our inner-city also have specialised provisions for the conversion of historic structures into new, more applicable uses in an attempt to preserve the historic character of an area whilst also accepting the need for change. Marrickville LEP’s Clause 6.9 (Soon to be the Inner West LEP) for the Conversion of Industrial or Warehouse Buildings is one such example. As the old industrial suburbs of Alexandria, Marrickville and Waterloo have become progressively redefined as key inner-city housing precincts, departing industries have left behind a legacy of sturdy, warehouses and factories. The expansive floor plates and tall ceilings of these buildings provide an equally unique opportunity for conversion into a range of housing typologies, including mezzanine and loft-style developments. Conversions such as these provide a bridge between the historical and the functional – retaining the old industrial character of an area, whilst meeting the new residential needs of Sydney in the 21st Century. 

Order in the court

In exploring additional opportunities for adaptive reuse, we can also turn to how the Land and Environment Court has interpreted the issue. In the pivotal case Hesse v Parramatta, which became one of the key planning principles of NSW, a four-part test was established to determine the public interest benefit of adaptive reuse, where a proponent would have to advocate for one or more of the following attributes:

  • The building is of historical or heritage value
  • The building is attractive and fits into its urban design context
  • The building is much loved by the community
  • The new use serves the public interest better than the existing use

Whilst the case demonstrated that adaptive reuse is not automatically in the public interest, these four guiding principles are extremely useful because it allows designers to engage more directly and critically with a local context to deliver, ultimately, a better outcome for the proponent of a project, the final users as well as the local community – a triple-win scenario. 

A world beyond heritage 

Beyond the world of heritage architecture, the potential for adaptation also exists in structures littered across our city more generally. The zone adjacency provisions contained in Clause 5.3 of the LEP once again offers flexibility to sites which lie adjacent to more intensive development zones. Caught between the interface between high and low density or commercial and residential zoning, lies dormant possibilities to reuse structures.

Old factories, old commercial buildings can often be converted without substantial demolition, providing substantially denser projects in areas where this may no longer be allowed. Similarly, recent development approvals in Glebe and Balmain have shown that old, pre-existing structures, whether originThe untapped opportunities of adaptive reuse On-site construction image, current development – removal of interior fabric and reinforcement of the top floor for construction of the new penthouse level. ally a boarding house, a warehouse, or offices, can be converted with substantially little structural change, but far higher floor space and height than current planning constraints.

These developments make clever use of existing building envelopes, providing a sound argument in their Clause 4.6 Variation that amenity in the neighbourhood remains unchanged, whilst modernising tired, old structures to supply much needed, high quality, sustainable housing to meet the needs of our growing city

The untapped opportunities of adaptive reuse
On-site construction image, current development – removal of interior fabric and reinforcement of the top floor for construction of the new penthouse level.

The future lies in our past

So often our planning system is thought of as an adversarial system, a tangled web woven to confuse and to prevent any change or progress from taking place. But when we begin to look closer, more carefully and more critically, we can actually find the individual paths of untapped potential of warehouse conversions, heritage incentives and pre-existing site benefits. This enables us not only to use heritage buildings in a useful way, but also in a meaningful one, preserving what is best for our past, whilst also looking ahead to the endless possibilities for our future.


Nicholas Failla

Nicholas is a content writer and graphic designer who is passionate about cities, architecture, urban planning and sustainable communities.

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