What do we do with the ghosts of buildings past?

What do we do when a building or structure just isn’t useful anymore? As technology transforms our economies and lifestyles, our urban infrastructure must evolve to adapt to changing circumstances.

The silence was sometimes too much to bear. During lockdown, as we walked around our cities, the ghosts of purposes past seemed to haunt us at every turn. Empty office blocks and shuttered cafes, with chairs stacked on tables and a sheen of dust across the counter. River boats floating in the harbour, unmanned, unused, used only as a perch for gulls. Locked theatres, with the poster for a show that ran months ago still advertised on the board.

As we emerge from lockdown, many of these buildings and business have opened again, their purpose renewed. But there are those that won’t reopen. There are those had lost their purpose even before the pandemic, becoming not just a financial liability to their owners, but a blight on the community surrounding them.

Cities change constantly and at Buro Happold it is our role to see the opportunities that exist in the changing built environment. These so-called “stranded” infrastructures — those empty offices and defunct shopping malls — are assets awaiting adaptation. By transforming these buildings into structures that align with how we live now, we are not only reducing financial risk for owners but also benefiting the community and the environment.

Stranded assets in oil and gas

The meaning of “stranded asset” is changing.  According to the dictionary, a stranded asset in its true, financial sense is an asset “that has suffered from unanticipated or premature write-downs, devaluations or conversion to liabilities”. It is also defined as an “asset that has become obsolete or non-performing but must be recorded on the balance sheet as a loss of profit”.  

However, in recent years the concept of a stranded asset has grown to include buildings and structures that have not adjusted their investment levels in line with emission targets needed to tackle global warming. According to UK think-tank Carbon Tracker, stranded assets are “assets that turn out to be worth less than expected as a result of changes associated with the energy transition”.

This transition was highlighted in the recent announcement by Royal Dutch Shell that it is drastically cutting the value of its oil and gas assets by up to $22 billion. BP is reducing the values of its assets by up to $17.5 billion. Triggered by a move away from fossil fuels, the shift has been accelerated by falling global demand and the impending recession caused by the pandemic. As a result of this devaluation, many of Shell and BP assets are at risk of becoming “stranded” ­— oil and gas around the world becomes too expensive to extract. Consequently, the oil field and its associated infrastructure become stranded.

Why structures lose their purpose

A move away from fossil fuels is just one of the reasons that assets lose their purpose and potential for profit. Buro Happold urban planners Richard Ainsley and Roger Savage have identified six drivers for change:

Regulatory change  A change in policy or legislation affects the usefulness of the asset
Physical change    For example, climate change impacts
Technological changeInnovation leading to obsolescence
Cultural change  Changes in habits and preferences
Macroeconomic changeWider economic or population shifts impacts demand
Microeconomic change Relative change in costs/prices affecting the asset

So, who recognises this change is happening?  When does the owner of an asset realise that their building or structure is failing? “Often, an asset owner comes to us and asks for advice on how they can transform their asset,” says Richard Ainsley by way of example. “Buro Happold is currently working with Edinburgh City Council to transform a former gasometer. The asset sits within quite a deprived part of the city and is obviously a bit of an eyesore. The gasometer is really performing no real function for the city. Our lighting team have been working on how we can transform the look and feel of the gas holder, and we’re working with the council and city more broadly to see what the use of that asset could be.”

Investment in property often occurs on a cyclical basis. If a library is not well-stocked with books, the building is cold and the seating shabby, why would you visit?  If everyone stops visiting, the value of the library declines, and therefore the financial risk to the owner increases. Cue huge investment, lots more books, a shiny updated building and more visitors. However, if this investment is not maintained, the cycle starts again.

 “For some of our more corporate clients, we find they are looking at their assets on a more regular basis, as part of their regular asset management activities,” adds Roger Savage. “In the case of higher education activities or local authorities, they would perhaps be taking a more strategic look than just their day-to-day refurbishment and updating of sites.”

Granton gasometer is performing no real function for the city. We’re currently working with Edinburgh City Council to explore future uses.

Richard Ainsley

The scale of the problem

These stranded assets, or adaptive reuse projects, do not just happen at building level. Assets can be of significant size and may transcend multiple sites. Sometimes a whole town needs renewal. “The town of Folkstone had become a bit down at heel because of changes at its port, the closure of a railway station and its relatively peripheral location as a coastal town in the UK,” explains Roger. “We worked together with a whole series of local partners in developing a strategy for regenerating the town and establishing a new cultural district. That has delivered results in drawing new people into the town, helping to revive the high street and attract new housing.”

People gathering to enjoy Folkestone Harbour

On an even bigger scale, Buro Happold is working with Detroit. This city that has suffered from a huge shift in purpose and population due to changes in the car-making industry. “We’ve worked with a whole series of different stakeholders, in developing a city-wide strategy, as well as on individual assets within the city,” explains Roger.

The Detroit Works Long Term Planning Project was initiated in 2010 and focuses on identifying an integrated economic, land use, environmental and systems strategy to support long-term transformation. Buro Happold has been instrumental in working out how to reconfigure the city for a smaller population and a different economic geography before testing alternative land-use scenarios from both technical and financial perspectives.

Buro Happold has been instrumental in working out how to reconfigure Detroit for a smaller population and a different economic geography before testing alternative land-use scenarios from both technical and financial perspectives.

Another Buro Happold US project is even larger… or perhaps we should say longer. The Erie Canal stretches over 350 miles in length from Albany to Buffalo and encompasses 42 cities. The original historic canal was completed in 1825 and then expanded twice. New York-based Alice Shay, an urban planner and engineer for BuroHappold, worked on the project and said that the Erie Canal “…is the reason that New York is the economic powerhouse it is today”.

However, by the 1950s it was functionally obsolete with most shipping having shifted to rail or highways. The New York Power Authority (NYPA) assumed control of the canal system and initiated a strategic planning process to assure its long-term vitality. As part of this process, NYPA and the New York State Canal Corporation engaged Buro Happold to run the Reimagine the Canals Competition and help develop a strategy for the future of the New York State Canal System.

Now, recreation is booming while Erie Canal acts as the catalyst for economic growth. The village of Canastota is developing new models for canal-side living in areas that were once waterfront manufacturing sites; the town of Pittsford has adapted a feeder canal segment into a white-water racing course; and the new Empire State Trail is a multi-use trail that lines the full length of the Erie Canal. 

Aerial shot of the Erie Canal against the greenery and houses on the waterside

All engineers agree that adaptive urban reuse, with a move towards a circular economy, is preferable to deposing of assets in almost all circumstances.

A history of urban shift

In terms of people and purpose, cities have always seen churn. The buildings that make up a city are secondary to what people do in them, and what they do changes all the time. What will become of those huge office blocks post pandemic now that many white-collar workers are comfortable working from home?  What happens to the shops now that we all seem to shop online? 

The big challenge for engineers and asset-owners is deciding between “reimagining” these structures and dismantling them. Many big pieces of infrastructure in our cities, built for heavy industry are reaching 100, 150 years old. But the decision to dispose of these assets must be taken with care, as there may be heavy environmental consequences. All engineers agree that adaptive urban reuse, with a move towards a circular economy, is preferable in almost all circumstances.

“It was a rusting hulk. It was a turning point in planning to realise there is a huge value in this asset, to the character. And reinvent it.” Cristobal Correa, Principal in the Buro Happold New York office remembers the High Line in New York, before it was transformed. This abandoned stretch of elevated railroad that spanned Manhattan’s meatpacking district was an eyesore, a relic from another age. The obvious thing to do was to pull it down, but thanks to Buro Happold’s masterplan work, the “relic” has become a thriving city park — it now has purpose.

“It’s something that would never be built now,” explained Cristobal. “We all crave a bit of friction with our fellow New Yorkers, and spaces where we run into people can be refreshing when we are all in front of our screens a lot. In terms of providing a space for the city, I think the High Line is a wonderful addition.”

As well as creating a green walkway for the city, the High Line’s reinvention has had solid financial results despite being free to access. “I think the real story of the High Line is how it has just driven a big chunk of the economy of that area,” explains Partner Craig Schwitter. “The High Line now generates $75m to $100m of tax revenue a year for New York City. It has paid for itself multiple times.”

Aerial shot of New York City NYC with yellow taxis dotted around the scene

The High Line now generates $75m to $100m of tax revenue a year for New York City. It has paid for itself multiple times.

Craig Schwitter

Community engagement is vital to success

Buildings and structures do not stand alone, they exist within their communities. An asset may be privately owned, owned by a public agency, or by multiple people.  Even those who don’t own it will have used it, or just feel it is theirs, as it exists in their neighbourhood.  Feelings may run high, especially when it comes to paying for the building’s regeneration.

Strong community support is often key to success. With the Erie Canal, Alice explains that on top of the Ideas competition, which garnered “so much excitement and energy”, Buro Happold also organised a state-wide taskforce that brought together six different estate agencies and stakeholders representing key constituency groups.

“Community engagement was particularly key,” she continues. “All of the public were able to weigh in on this process. The biggest challenge was communicating the future potentials… communities or individuals can be very invested in the way that they see the system today or in the past. There are ways to support people to really dream big and think of what the future can hold.  Competitions are a really great way of doing this.”

Roger Savage agrees, adding that if funding for a project is needed often the community will come together to raise money. “Seeking and developing a case for funding is sometimes why people come to us at Buro Happold,” he says. “We’ve even seen people look at crowd sourcing to draw attention to a particular asset.”

Bringing life back into buildings and cities

All our experts conclude that the best way to deal with a stranded asset is to stop it becoming stranded in the first place. “We encourage our clients to look beyond their day to day business, track emerging trends and different forces affecting their business,” says Roger. “We help them to anticipate change and learn about the uncertainties they are dealing with.”

But sometimes buildings and cities have to change. Transforming buildings and cities that have lost their purpose allows us to reimagine our cities, to align with how we live now. It demonstrates our commitment to live together in an equitable, sustainable and resilient urban landscape. Refurbishing and adaptively reusing underutilised or abandoned buildings revitalises neighbourhoods and brings environmental benefits.

This type of work is of increasing importance to Buro Happold. “Earlier in my career I would have said what makes us Buro Happold was iconic new buildings,” explains Craig. “And yet, as I’ve grown up around the High Line, and started to understand its power, I’ve started to see that these projects are as iconic and more powerful than those new buildings.”

Whatever you like to call them, stranded asset or adaptive urban reuse projects are vital to maintaining the fabric of cities. These projects are here to stay.

We encourage our clients to look beyond their day to day business, track emerging trends and different forces affecting their business

Roger Savage

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