A former public restroom in Boston is being converted into a sandwich shop.  That doesn’t sound too good at first.  But fortunately the restroom has been closed for decades, so the space really hasn’t been used as a bathroom for a long time.  

OK, it still doesn’t sound so good.   An article about the project appeared on the web, and creative readers posted some comments.  Before we go further, let’s consider some of the commentary:  

“Urine for a good meal.” 

“Call it the new Out-Back” 

“Overheard: "Yum, I wonder what the secret ingredient is?"”  

“One could place an order, throw it immediately into a toilet, thereby completely skipping the middle man.” 

Thematically, the idea of reusing former bathroom space as a restaurant seems a bit extreme.  But it does illustrate (in an extreme way) issues associated with reuse of infrastructure space. Infrastructure is usually designed for a specific use.  A bridge is designed to be a bridge, not a football field.  Likewise, all the spaces we inhabit have assigned to them, at first, specific uses.  Residential space design is very different from office space design, which in turn is different from spaces designed for various industrial functions.   Some of the most interesting spaces are the result of adaptive reuse.  Former factories become residences. 

In Boston, a prison has been converted into a hotel, and we’re not talking Motel 6 here- it’s a luxury hotel.  The hotel website offers the following tidbit:
 

“Once the storied Charles Street Jail, The Liberty Hotel welcomes guests to Boston with the spirit of a landmark liberated…” 

Kudos to the PR department for that one.  

Not far from the prison/hotel is a former bank that has been converted to a restaurant.  You actually get to eat downstairs in the vault, which is available for private parties.

 

A website lists seven creative adaptive reuse projects, including a water tower that’s now a house, and a ship hauled up on a bluff that’s also a house.  The best one I think is the reuse of a former industrial viaduct in New York City.  The High Line, a decaying 19th century railroad bridge in Manhattan has been rehabilitated as a beautiful linear park.This reuse is like the well-known Bridge of Flowers in Shelburne Falls, Massachusetts, where an old trolley bridge has been converted to a lush garden and is big tourist attraction for the area.  You typically think of buildings for reuse projects, but the High Line and the Bridge of Flowers show that bridges are fair game as well.

 

Loft residences, with their high ceilings, exposed bricks and wood beams, are sought after places to live.  Many of the loft buildings were former factories which perhaps had less than desirable industrial conditions.  In their initial state, some were dreary, poorly ventilated, hazardous sweatshops.  But reborn as residential lofts, these tony refinished spaces are appreciated for their quirky corners, lighting and edginess.  The layout imparts a sense of difference for people who wouldn’t be caught living in a 3 bedroom ranch in Levittown. 

 

Adaptive reuse is considered to be all good.  It’s green because you reuse it instead of ripping it down.  It’s edgy and fashionable because you can work with exposed bricks and maybe even windows that open.  It’s new because it’s old. 

It also begs the question of whether or not it’s possible to design things this way in the first place – why wait a hundred years to repurpose the facility?   Instead, we could design today’s prisons with the flexibility for their future conversions to hotels.  To design every facility for every use, of course, is impossible.  But maybe there are some common denominators in every design that makes different uses more feasible.  We actually do this now without thinking about it.  Every building has certain utility and functional requirements that can serve multiple industrial and residential functions, not just the specific use being designed for.  Maybe by tweaking the code a little bit, it is possible to build more flexibility into buildings.  If a potty can become a restaurant, apparently there are few limits to what can be reused. An increasingly sustainable infrastructure design and construction system will seek to reduce barriers for sustainability.