Revitalising Downtown through Adaptive Reuse

Home / Programme / Bachelor of Science (ASD) / Courses / 20.111 Sustainable Design Option Studio 2 / Revitalising Downtown through Adaptive Reuse


Pauline Ang

As cities worldwide begin to emerge cautiously from the pandemic, the convergence of housing shortage, reduced office demand and the climate crisis has renewed calls for the conversion of
commercial buildings to residential use as a sustainable solution. While this idea is not new, it has largely taken place in a limited manner, due to constraints such as high conversion cost and
restrictive laws.

One successful precedent of significant scale is the transformation of Lower Manhattan in New York City. Under the Lower Manhattan Conversion Programme in 1995, tax abatements were introduced to incentivise the conversion of commercial buildings built before 1975, in response to the housing shortage crisis and high downtown office vacancy rates after the economic recession of the early 1990s. Post-9/11, the exodus of office tenants from Lower Manhattan provided the impetus for another wave of commercial-to-residential conversions, as the city recovered from the devastating attacks on the World Trade Centre towers. About 19.7 million square feet of space has reportedly been converted to residential use since 1995, with 76% of these conversions occurring since 9/11. Today, Lower Manhattan is no longer a single-use, nine-to-five Financial District but has grown into a lively mixed-use neighbourhood with a diversity of businesses.

New York City is currently exploring if a similar adaptive reuse strategy can be adopted in Midtown. The New York City-based Architectural Research Office (ARO) put this idea to the test in a
speculative study, radically altering the stepped ziggurat form of a mid-century Midtown office building with a series of massing additions and subtractions to open up the deep floorplates at the base of the building and introduce planted terraces at the upper levels. The reconfigured building contains a diverse mix of housing, office space, shared amenities, and retail to create a mini community within. To reduce the embodied carbon of the development, the foundation and structure of the building are reused, and new additions are constructed with low carbon mass timber in place of concrete and steel. While the proposal will only be feasible with a change in existing zoning and building codes, the post-pandemic supply and demand conundrum, coupled with new laws that require buildings to sharply reduce their carbon emissions by 2030, may well be the tipping point for such change.

Studio Description and Objectives

The Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) introduced the Central Business District Incentive (CBDI) Scheme in 2019 to “encourage selective rejuvenation of our CBD…to achieve positive transformation in these areas”. Under the scheme, bonus Gross Floor Area (GFA) incentives are provided for the conversion of older office buildings to mixed-used buildings in the selected downtown areas of Anson, Cecil Street, Robinson Road, Shenton Way and Tanjong Pagar. Qualifying developments are required to meet stipulated sustainability targets, and urban design guidelines for the Downtown Core Planning Area relating to building edge design, landscaping, pedestrian connectivity etc. will also apply.

Using the CBDI Scheme as a framework, the studio will explore adaptive reuse strategies to transform and revitalise Singapore’s Central Business District, by converting ageing or
underperforming office buildings to mixed-use buildings with a significant residential or hotel component. The presence of a live-in residential community will inject vibrancy to the district,
encouraging the development of amenities such as schools, markets, and parks to support the needs of the community, and provide greater resilience for businesses during economic downturns,
pandemics, and other disruptive events. Importantly, the studio seeks to establish adaptive reuse as a viable, sustainable approach to be considered in the face of rapidly worsening climate change and Singapore’s push towards decarbonisation by or around mid-century. This includes buildings that are not necessarily regarded as heritage buildings or buildings with special architectural significance individually, but collectively provide a vital link to the history and evolution of the city. Within the Singapore context, such buildings are often demolished and replaced – an expedient tabula rasa approach that has seen older buildings and neighbourhoods disappear from the Singapore landscape year after year.

The studio is organised into 4 main stages, with students working in groups:

  1. Typology Study: Typical office, residential and hotel configurations; Comparison of design parameters such as form, floor plate configuration, and façade design between each type.
  2. Context Mapping / Site Analysis of the CBDI areas
  3. Data Gathering for qualifying office buildings under the CBDI Scheme; Identification of 2 buildings for further development into residential/mixed-use buildings based on a preliminary
    analysis of building floor plates, core configurations and façade types.
  4. Concept Development: For each selected building, 2 adaptive reuse schemes with different programmatic mixes shall be developed. Each scheme shall be developed by a group of 3
    students. Concept Development comprises massing studies and interior spatial configuration proposals in response to the new programmatic requirements and surrounding urban context,
    followed by the development of the selected design schemes, including façade design.