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COVID-19 has been advancing rapidly and disrupting our daily lives. The virus has demanded to use our creativity to convert spaces and host temporarily new emergency uses. As many of us stay home adapting our own house as office, school, nursery and/or nursing, key stakeholders in our cities are working to contain the pandemic and converting even iconic sites, adapting them in the short-term to new priority uses.
We have seen how different areas of tourism or recreation have fulfilled sanitary functions during the crisis, we have demonstrated with #StayAtHome the problem of quantity and quality of housing during the pandemic; so we begin to wonder what we will do with so many office spaces in telework scenarios.
Let us remind ourselves, it is common seeing gyms or schools as makeshift shelters for victims of natural disasters, but COVID-19 has another scale and with social distancing and safety limitations requires more complexity in the way we apply physical changes of common spaces to face unusual circumstances. The coronavirus has led us to convert hotels, now empty in the absence of tourists, into recovery or quarantine spaces, especially for people who do not have caregiver networks. At the same time, parking lots of education or sports facilities house field hospitals. It was a surprise to see the ice palace in Madrid, a winter skating and entertainment center, under a tax-exempt private concession, converted into an additional morgue due to its low temperatures during the highest period of the pandemic.
Luckily, we don’t start from zero in this field. Heritage preservation practices have established for centuries the adaptive reuse as a rehabilitation strategy facing functional obsolescence. In other words, as societies mutate, historical buildings change uses to extend their useful life, modernize, and mitigate the lack of maintenance in phases of underuse and abandonment. This sustainable process incorporates the benefit of the building’s embodied energy, avoiding early demolitions and, lengthening the lifecycle of materials and construction (Bullen, 2011).
At a slower pace than Coronavirus adaptive reuse, heritage structures and/or preexistent buildings have faced radical twist in their reuse. Ex-jails have become community and cultural centers in Valparaíso and Montevideo; churches were converted into housing in Montreal, Utrecht, and London, among others; industrial spaces into lofts or artist ateliers in New York and Baltimore, or in an amusement park in the Ruhr, among a very long list of examples.
Adaptive rehabilitation examples, where prisons and industrial or religious structures are used for community, recreational and residential uses:
We could learn from these long processes of adaptive rehabilitation for the current fast-tracked and growing adaptation to new uses that we are experiencing during the emergency and after it. First, the interventions in heritage structures, as well as the temporary conversions for coronavirus, can be reversible. This means that the logic behind the physical intervention allows going back to the original starting point of the structures once the new use is finished and it will face a new stage, with an undetermined function.
As we are adapting buildings in record time, it is difficult to leave no trace of these adaptations in the buildings and in the memories of the citizens. However, the minimal adaptive intervention is also the quickest, and time is pressing in this health crisis. In the case of a deeper adaptation, the system of heritage values helps to prioritize actions to keep intact the essential aspects of the structures and its memories, even when facing users and uses that were previously unsuspected.
Let’s start with the minimal adaptation, taking the O’Higgins hotel in Viña del Mar as an example. This space, dating back to 1936, was once the headquarters of artists such as Luis Miguel or Chayanne, who participated every February in the Viña Song Festival. It could now receive low-risk patients thanks to the availability of 500 beds with a private bathroom, with space for equipment and material storage. It will also allow the provision of comfort for those who must quarantine and do not have an adequate place where to spend it . This publicly-owned hotel, which was previously leased to a private actor and closed after a fire in February 2020, was given for free by the Municipality to the Ministry of Health during the crisis. The structure was adapted in a matter of a few weeks, including the sanitization of spaces and the removal of all the internal items and decorative furniture to minimize surfaces for contagion. The rooms should be hygienic and, at the same time, comfortable to ensure the emotional state of the patients. Hotel-to-hospitals can be found throughout cities and regions worldwide, where tourists are currently replaced by patients and, in the future, by tourists again. It is important to notice that hotels can count already with check-in or reception systems, room services, cleaning, laundry, garbage handling, security, fire networks, etc. that are required and are more quickly adaptable to sanitation standards. This is a completely reversible intervention that adds value to the building for having played a public service in times of crisis. In the future, the hotel will probably have just one plaque in memory of what it was in 2020.
Other hotels are exploring the possibilities of taking in more critical patients and temporarily turning their souvenir shops into pharmacies and offices into laboratories. They are adding generators and ventilation or extraction systems to support equipment and networks of medical technology and removing carpets and furniture from rooms for more critically ill patients. Even in these cases, the intervention is reversible. In turn, in the United States only, 3.3 million hotel rooms were destined for medical personnel who work on COVID-19 to avoid they return to their homes and being sources of contagion.
If we consider the physiological aspects of the crisis, it is more dignified and encouraging staying for recovery in a Hotel-to-hospital than in a temporary awning or tent structure. The latter abruptly interrupts the urban landscape increasing the perception of crisis or panic in a city. A field hospital, which invades an open space, generates more impact than the reuse of a building that remained closed.
Similar to the hotel industry, Airbnb also welcomes medical personnel in Italy, and 200 Airbnb in Barcelona welcome homeless people during this crisis. Furthermore, the rental leases, previously destined to tourists for just a couple of days, are now being extended for longer terms, helping to respond to the housing deficit in good locations.
Usually, the iconic megastructures of our cities are the ones facing adaptive processes, a factor key to COVID-19 for social distancing in bigger spaces. The iconic structures, often heritage assets, are a point of reference in dense areas and can facilitate the service systems and emergency response mechanisms. The selected spaces, both publicly and privately owned, usually have low or zero acquisition costs to enable quick and efficient adaptation. The interest in facilitating their adaptive reuse relies also on the collective interest for the conservation of these sites, since it could have historical value due to the events that occurred there; aesthetic value in its own architecture; as well as symbolic value or social value for a specific community. The best way to preserve a building in a sustainable way is to keep it in use, respecting its original use or assigning a new one.
We have also seen convention centers used during the emergency of COVID-19, such as Espacio Riesco in Santiago, Chile or the Javits Center in New York. The lease of the private convention center Espacio Riesco, by the Chilean Ministry of Health was controversial and enabled in a matter of weeks. This process provides us with various lessons about the adaptation of private buildings by public entities. This structure is in the area most affected by the pandemic in Santiago; it has strategic access and electric generators for hospital operations despite power cuts, among other conditions. However, its leasing brings into discussion the need to justify the comparative advantages of this infrastructure versus others at zero cost in the area, and the need to publish the administrative acts of the procurement process in transparency portals. A different example is the Jacob Javits Convention Center in New York. This structure is owned and operated by the municipality and was habilitated for the emergency with local funds and made available to the Federal government, while waiting for a reimbursement from the national level. Like many spaces in crisis, it was habilitated by agencies associated with the military forces. In less than a week, it already had 1,000 hospital beds. Military experts pointed out that the physical adaptation was not the problem as the process was similar to the one used after Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans or Sandy in Puerto Rico. The management of the hospital was the issue, few know how to do it. Adaptive rehabilitation must be accompanied by good management models, from the very beginning of the redesign process. Models can be complex for long-term polyfunctional structures, but they must be as simple and clear as possible under emergency protocols.
If the adaptation of the existing building for a new use is more profound, then the intervention criteria drawn from heritage preservation can guide us. Depending on the building and its level of protection, the image or icon associated with the facade or building envelope, the typology of the building and its structural system are commonly maintained, while interior spaces are modified according to the new demands. For example, a building in a patio house type will hardly work well in a new use, socially and environmentally, if we close the light and/or ventilation coming from the patio to accommodate new functions.
When a building designed for a specific use is no longer in demand for that use or is in disuse, it may be because its physical conditions no longer fulfill current regulations, its area or land already has another vocation, or its accessibility/connectivity no longer competes with other emerging areas of the city. Then, not only architectural challenges of functionality, livability, and comfort methods come into place, but also legal and/or regulatory challenges emerge to change land use in the long term (outside of emergency periods). In the case of objects, if they are no longer useful, they easily end up in a closet or garbage can. In the case of larger and more expensive buildings, functional obsolescence forces us to think about how to match the available structure and the new needs). Similarly, there are key opportunities and barriers that facilitate decision-making for rehabilitation (See Figure below).
Moreover, countries like Italy, Spain, and several in the Latin American region are discussing the payments of leases of commercial spaces that will remain closed for months, therefore without income and with high costs. The temporary or permanent reuse of spaces has direct value in terms of income and an indirect value in terms of its own existence, possible use and inheritance or reference for local communities (Rojas, 2013). Sociocultural, economic, and environmental benefits also emerge from maintaining existing structures in (a new?) active use. Adapting and reusing an existing building is first and foremost an environmental decision, allowing us to minimize the energy (and emissions) associated with new construction, new materials, and new land.
Since 2018, the Cities Lab of the Inter-American Development Bank has been testing new temporary uses in iconic and central spaces in the cities of Sao Luís, Panama, Paramaribo, Buenos Aires, Santiago, among others. These temporary interventions contain the evaluation of their results to understand which of the new uses is best adapted to the physical and social context, and then replicate or scale-up the successful experiences. Today we face a new challenge for COVID-19, the changes in use could set off opportunities for innovation and urban contribution in abandoned or underused buildings or infrastructures, usually in strategic locations. We can explore and co-build the shared space that we have not been able to use during this crisis and that will take a different role in the cities in the future.
Never before have we seen such a massive emergence of teleworking as in these weeks. This legacy of COVID-19 will force us to think about how we could adapt office spaces to new uses. Cities like Amsterdam have been doing it for a while, converting former office buildings in central areas to serve well-located housing units. The possibilities of uses are as numerous as the evolutionary needs of our cities. If there is one thing that is certain in this pandemic, it is that we must be flexible to react quickly to new urban needs. We have neither the time nor the resources (financial and environmental) to build each time from scratch. The adaptive rehabilitation that we have been practicing for centuries takes more and more strength now.
Cover photo: Campaign Hospital. Pacaembu Stadium. São Paulo, Brazil. Source: https://as.com/futbol/imagenes/2020/03/29/mas_futbol/1585439009_066169_1585439103_noticia_normal.jpg
 When a building or site stops providing the function, it was designed for.
 Bullen, Peter. (2011). Factors influencing the adaptive re-use of buildings. Journal of Engineering, Design and Technology. 9. 32-46.
 Several countries in the region have their respective strategies for homeless people during the pandemic. Highlighting the case of Sao Paulo, which since 2018 locates homeless people while recovering abandoned homes in central areas.https://sao-paulo.estadao.com.br/noticias/geral,prefeitura-quer-colocar-morador-de-rua-em-imoveis-desocupados-no-centro,70002167304
 The rental theme will be detailed in another IDB blog in this series COVID-19
 Abramson, Daniel M., (2016). Obsolescence: An Architectural History.
 Rojas, Eduardo (Enero 2013) “Heritage: rehabilitación urbana y conservación sostenible del patrimonio”, [Workshop] P. Universidad Católica de Chile, Santiago, Chile.
Donovan Rypkema says
Hi, Isidora. Excellent piece! I’ve linked it to our three Facebook pages — PlaceEconomics, Heritage Strategies International, and my own. Hope you’re staying safe, healthy, and sane. Best wishes,
Isidora Larraín de Andraca says
Hi Donovan! Thanks a lot for sharing this! Hopefully, we can all contribute in this direction. Please let us know if you find more good practices about it, we could also try to share your content to build a stronger community of practice. I also hope you are staying safe, healthy, and well!
Daniel Eduardo Pons says
Hola Isadora, he leído varios artículos tuyos, estoy trabajando en elaboración proyectos urbanos ojalá innovadores, incorporando patrimonio cultural, inclusión, ecoeficiencia e industrias creativas y culturales.
Comprende también , por la zona elegida, la revitalización patrimonial de un centro histórico aún no establecido como tal, pero que cumple con los requisitos para poder así considerarlo. Podría comunicarme contigo? Para consultas y seguir procesos para poder, una vez aprobados localmente, escalar en ayudas del BID u otros organismo. Gracias desde ya! Mucho me ha gustado tu modo y capacidad!