Repurposing heritage buildings (adaptive reuse) for viable new uses is a major focus of current heritage practice. These new uses provide a commercial case for building owners to undertake conservation and maintenance works, as well as compliance and services upgrades that increase the lifespan and value of heritage assets.

The most important thing for a heritage building is that it is occupied and used. An occupied building is more likely to be properly maintained. Conversely the biggest risk is to have buildings sitting vacant where they can quickly deteriorate and become a liability to their owners.

The first step toward identifying potential new uses for significant national-, state- and locally-listed heritage places requires expertise to develop an understanding of the history and significance of a place. This understanding informs the drafting of policies and protocols to guide the future reuse and conservation process. This methodology is now well established in current heritage practice through the use of the Conservation Management Plan as guided by the processes outlined in the Australia ICOMOS Burra Charter.

Ideally, the adaptive reuse of heritage buildings should consider uses that retain and enhance the values of a places as well as the significant heritage building fabric. New uses should also be a good fit for the building typology and the existing spaces within the building while also respecting former uses.

Over the past 20 years of practice there have been some clear trends emerge in the adaptive reuse of heritage buildings. In particular the buildings subject to reuse have been civic and commercial buildings where the original use no longer exists or the ongoing use requires either a smaller or larger footprint. This includes buildings such as customs houses, post office and bank buildings. As congregation sizes diminish many churches and religious buildings are also now being repurposed. Many of our cities still contain an early industrial core in or close to the city centre in what is now prime real estate. The relocation of industry provides warehouse and industrial building stock for reuse.

Contemporary heritage practice includes a number of facets; works to repair and conserve heritage fabric; works to adaptively reuse a building (including new services and upgrades required to enable new uses); and contemporary additions to heritage buildings.

The adaptive reuse and upgrade of heritage buildings to meet current codes and standards involves making changes to heritage places that often include the introduction of new elements and services to facilitate the new use as well as making the building safe and accessible. The ICOMOS Burra Charter guidance on this (Article 22) states that

New work such as additions to a place may be acceptable where it does not distort or obscure the cultural significance of a place. New work should be identifiable as such.

Typical upgrades to heritage buildings include;

  • Upgrade of fire services and egress routes (including smoke and thermal detectors, exit signage, fire hose reels, fire extinguishers and in some cases sprinkler systems)
  • Upgrade of lift or the additional of a new lift fitted retrospectively
  • Equitable access – this can include the addition of ramps or platform/chair lifts and compliant toilets
  • Upgrading of plumbing fittings and fixtures (to more water efficient fixtures)
  • Upgrade of electrical and mechanical systems
  • New data, communications and security
  • Upgrade of lighting (to newer technology LED and energy efficient fittings) both internal and external lighting – often the new use of a building requires a different lighting level to the original use
  • Upgrade of insulation for better thermal performance
  • Roof repair and replacement
  • Rainwater goods repair and upgrade

Equitable access is a particular challenge with many solutions (such as ramps) being expensive and having a big physical impact on a heritage place. Recent developments in equitable access include stairs that can collapse and be turned into a platform lift.

Above: Queen Victoria Building, George Street, Sydney – refurbishment as retail space including introduction of new services such as escalators detailed to have a light weight appearance. New signage, lighting and services introduced to upgraded retail space. Photography by Anthea Horton

As heritage building stock ages the repair and conservation of building fabric is becoming an issue of focus and priority for heritage practitioners, building owners, asset managers and authorities.

Typically many heritage buildings face similar issues including roof repair or replacement, failing box gutters and rainwater goods, failed flashings and cappings, rising and falling damp issues, failed damp proof courses, weathering of facades including doors and window and termite damage.

While many of the archetypical heritage buildings are stone and brick (or in Queensland timber and tin) we are also seeing many buildings from the modern movement era (1950’s through to late 1960’s) on heritage registers. These buildings have their own materiality and associated unique conservation issues. This includes concrete carbonation and corrosion of reinforcing which can expand in section by up to 10 times causing concrete to blow or delaminate (otherwise known as concrete cancer)

Best practice heritage outcomes for repair and conservation rely on working with a range of experts and using a range of appropriate methodologies and associated specialist products.

Good outcomes outcome rely on working with skilled specialist tradesman. In Australia the industry is facing a shortage of these heritage trades and skills which in some sectors are in decline and very short supply.

  • Some of the key skills and specialists needed in heritage conservation includes;
  • Underpinning
  • Desalination (removal of salts from stone and brick masonry)
  • Stone cleaning, repair and repointing
  • Brick cleaning, repair and repointing
  • Brick crack repair
  • Plaster and render repair
  • Paint removal
  • Specialist painters – using traditional finishes such as limewash, colour washes and distempers
  • Joinery repairs and refurbishment (doors and windows in particular)
  • Lead specialists for traditional lead flashings, weatherings and cappings
  • Roofing experts in copper, slate and timber shingle
  • Bird proofing

Each of these specialist trades can use a range of materials and products on the market.


Above: Former West Showroom, Wickham Street, Fortitude Valley – reconstruction and reuse as retail space and architects studio. Photography by Christopher Frederick Jones

Right: Africa Hall, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia – conservation work includes a focus on conserving and upgrading an aging reinforced concrete structure

Above: Lady Cilento Children’s Hospital Foundation Building, Stanley Street – new extension added to the heritage building to provide new services including lifts and fire stairs. Photography by Christopher Frederick Jones

There are some key companies like Westox that lead the way in providing a suite of materials and methods for use in best practice heritage projects including their desalination system (Coccoon) and their products for paint removal, plaster repair, stone and brick repointing,etc

Some of the key challenges for heritage projects include;

  • Safe access for inspection and undertaking repair and conservation works
  • Sensitive building cleaning (with appropriate products and methods)
  • Removal of plastic paints (which over brick and stone can stop the building breathing)
  • Removal of hard cement renders to allow building facades to breathe
  • Using breathable lime based mortars and plasters for repair and repointing
  • Using new breathable paint (mineral and silicate based) finishes – there are many new products that allow moisture movement from the inside out
  • Addressing rising damp issues – many early buildings had no damp proof course
  • Bird proofing
  • Additional of new services – how to run these new services in a sensitive way
  • Finding materials to match original fabric for making repairs (such as stone and timber
  • Box gutters and overflows
  • Flat tanked roof areas relying on physical membranes

New additions to heritage buildings allow for additional floor area to be added to a heritage building or site to assist with increasing the yield and business case for a project. Often many of the services for the heritage building can be incorporated into the new addition.

New additions should be contemporary in design and detail yet respect the existing heritage building in form, scale and materiality (again guided by the Australia ICOMOS Burra Charter).

Above: University of Queensland Goddard Building (School of Biological Sciences) – modern rooftop extension Contemporary copper screen detail to conceal new openings and provide a simple unified fa├žade treatment. Photography by Christopher Frederick Jones