Good, Thoughtful Hosts #101: Adaptive Reuse with Ava Alltmont

In our debut episode, we discuss the concept of reimagining existing and sometimes historic structures, a practice known as adaptive reuse. Ava Alltmont, an architect and project manager who leads Cushing Terrell’s historic preservation team in New Orleans, helps us better understand what adaptive reuse means, who benefits, and how it all works.

About Our Guest
Based in New Orleans, Ava’s background is in mixed-use developments, multi-family, hospitality, retail, and education projects, with extensive experience in historic renovations, adaptive reuse, and historic tax credit projects. She serves on the Louisiana state selection committee for the National Register of Historic Places and is a fierce advocate of advancing women in the AEC industry.

Episode #101 Transcript | Listen on SoundCloud

Sarah Steimer
One of my favorite niche websites is a blog called Used to Be a Pizza Hut. It’s a photo series of businesses: for example, a dentist’s office or a Chinese restaurant that, as the name suggests, used to be a Pizza Hut. And while it’s a funny sight to have a podiatrist’s name on the door of the squat, iconic buildings, it’s actually a great example of adaptive reuse.

I’m Sarah Steimer and on today’s episode of Good, Thoughtful Hosts, we’re diving into the concept of reimagining existing and sometimes historic structures, a practice known as adaptive reuse. It’s not only an eco-friendly building option, it can also provide the region with a sense of place and maintain its accessibility, versus encouraging urban or suburban sprawl when we build brand new. So let’s dive in and explore the practice of upcycling our built environment.

Producer 01:16
Today’s special guest:

Ava Alltmont 01:18
My name is Ava Alltmont. I’m an architect and project manager with Cushing Terrell. I lead our historic preservation team here out of our New Orleans office.

Sarah Steimer 01:31
So let’s start super basically. Let’s talk about what some of the different types of adaptive reuse may be. So renovation, modernization, so forth. And could you maybe give us one or two examples of some of these different types of adaptive reuse?

Ava Alltmont 01:47
Sure. There many different types of adaptive reuse, you just mentioned a few of them: renovation, modernization, historic preservation.

When you home in on historic preservation, there’s very specific types within that umbrella. There’s pure preservation, which focuses on the maintenance and repair of existing historic materials, and retaining the property’s form as it evolved over time. There’s rehabilitation, which is more altering the historic property to meet changing times and meet modern times. There’s restoration, which depicts a property at a particular period of time in history, while removing evidence of other periods. And then there’s reconstruction, which is almost rebuilding a structure entirely from documentation of, of the past of what it was at one point in time. So those are sort of the four under historic preservation.

But then there’s also just renovation to structures that aren’t necessarily considered historic, by you know, by that 50-year mark are architecturally significant, or historically architecturally significant. So, renovation in general just means changing an existing structure to be used in one way and changing it to another.

So renovation is a really broad term, what falls under that umbrella is, you know, historic preservation definitely falls under that, modernization would fall under that. Modernization specifically can mean a lot of things. It could mean, you know, taking a structure and doing a true adaptive reuse where you’re changing the structure from one use — let’s say it was a bowling alley — and then you’re changing it to a grocery store. That’s a total change. There’s other things such as modernization upgrades that you hear a lot, a lot about mechanical retrofits to improve energy efficiency and indoor air quality. That’s becoming, you know, quite a common thing in this post-COVID world, indoor air quality is becoming increasingly important. So modernizing buildings to account for that to allow for more fresh air in the buildings. That’s something that you’re seeing a lot of.

Lighting upgrades to improve both the light quality and the energy energy efficiency, that’s been happening, I guess, probably for the past 10 years, maybe 15 years. Now, the common thing that you see is the swapping out of fluorescent lighting for LED lights. And then another modernization upgrade, which you see on older buildings, is window replacements. So a lot of older buildings have single-pane windows, they’re not very energy efficient. So replacing those windows to be double-pane or even triple-pane, you know, can significantly improve energy efficiency to a structure.

Sarah Steimer 04:43
Got it. So in addition to that, in addition to energy efficiencies, what are some of the other environmental benefits to adaptive reuse?

Ava Alltmont 04:53
Adaptive reuse in general, I mean, you reuse a building, you’re avoiding having to construct a new building, right? So right there, there’s a lot of savings that you’re capturing there. So to retrofit some of the — there’s a lot of numbers out there — but a kind of a general number to retrofit, or adaptive reuse of a building generally saves about 50 to 75% of embodied carbon.

There’s an argument that high-performing new construction structures are better performing, much better performing than older structures and therefore there’s a case there that high-performing new construction is better than adaptive reuse. However, I’d argue that it generally takes about 20 to 80 years to pay back the emissions generated from the construction process. And, you know, last I checked, I don’t think we have that kind of time to wait. That’s, you know, that’s some time to wait on that. So you’re sort of, there’s a gamble there, right? I think that’s the biggest argument for it. And, you know, it also helps just — suburban sprawl, urban sprawl, you can avoid building on a greenfield by doing adaptive reuse. I would hope everyone could agree using, you know, taking a green, untouched piece of land would be better to leave it untouched than to build on.

Sarah Steimer 06:18
Well, so let’s also then talk about one of the other major benefits of adaptive reuse, which is, you help to maintain a community’s sense of place by maybe not tearing down those older buildings, or by not adding more and more sprawl. Because sometimes, you know, the farther away you get from a city center or town center, the less you’re kind of seeing that sort of very obvious sense of place. That “Oh, this is Main Street, this is the heart of this community.” This is what gives it that sense of community, that sense of place, that character. So can you talk a little bit about how this adaptive reuse can be so instrumental to a town’s sense of place?

Ava Alltmont 07:02
Yeah, well, you know, people are intrinsically tied to the, to their places, and neighborhoods, and the character of them. You know, when you take a structure that’s been underused, that’s architecturally significant in some way, it’s maybe iconic in some way, it helps define, you know, a certain neighborhood, or maybe it’s like a corner store that has a lot of local history to it, there’s stories of people’s families who grew up going to the store, and then maybe their grandparents went there, and their children now go there. And then there’s something, you know, that that store is no longer there, or it was torn down in some way, it sort of leaves a scar on the community when those places that define the community, or somehow, you know, for whatever reason, are no longer there. So when you restore these structures, or reuse them in some way, it does breathe new life into them, and it starts to enhance a community’s pride in a place. So I think that’s, that’s something that it’s kind of this intangible thing that adaptive reuse can do to help lift a community.

Sarah Steimer 08:13
So we’ve got kind of these different pieces to the puzzle at this point, right? So adaptive reuse: great for the environment, great for maintaining a community’s sense of place. But it sounds like both of those, and maybe some other things we’re about to talk about that we — before I hit record on this episode — we were talking about, but it’s this idea of quality of life.

So why, as maybe a developer or a business, would you want to care about these different types of quality of life when you are moving into particularly a smaller midsize city? Because, you know, larger cities, there’s a little bit more of an obvious reason for adaptive reuse, which is simply that there’s only so much space in a major city, it’s already so dense that you oftentimes have to reuse buildings, that’s your only option. But in these smaller communities, what is sort of the driver for why a company would want to do this, especially as it relates to quality of life, things like that? Why would it be important for them to maybe care about this when it comes to their consumers?

Ava Alltmont 09:25
Convenience can attract employees. By having their business be located in a place where — whether it’s their customers or their employees — they can access it easily and not by car. I think that’s something that people are attracted to. They want to be able to walk or bike to the places that they work at, shop at, eat at and not have to get into the car to just, you know, go pick up some milk. It is a big plus for a lot of people. You don’t have to spend money on gas for your car, you get exercise for doing it. And I think developers more and more are understanding that this, this is a, you know, quality of life concerns are definitely something top of mind for them. And for, you know, for the communities that they’re starting to work in.

Sarah Steimer 10:20
You know, there’s something that seems to be a little bit of a trend right now. Because you mentioned, you know, in sort of a post-COVID world where we’re doing and seeing a lot more adaptive reuse and change as far as just making sure some of these older buildings are, you know, a bit more friendly to our health concerns now. So there’s better air quality, things like that.

Another sort of post-COVID trend I think we’re seeing and we’ll probably continue to see to some extent are more open storefronts available. Storefronts, many businesses didn’t necessarily make it past the first year or two of the pandemic. And so there does seem to be this really big opportunity to reuse those spaces. And we saw it before the pandemic with empty malls, for example, where maybe some startups, things like that, saw this opportunity to take these empty malls that are just sitting there and actually refill them with maybe not big box stores, but smaller mom and pop shops. Do you think that we’ll see not just smaller companies but maybe larger, more national or even global companies being drawn to adaptive reuse?

Ava Alltmont 11:33
Yeah, certainly. I mean, I think, you know, the talk about the empty storefronts, I think that was starting to happen a little bit before the pandemic. But I think people need to, people are starting to rethink how those storefronts can be reused. So it’s something that’s consumer-facing.

So one of the things that we’re starting to see, at least I’m seeing locally, are vacant storefronts repurposed for medical-related services that are community-facing. So maybe urgent care facilities are one of them. But even like anything where you would have to go in, you know, maybe just for lab testing, or there’s all sorts of medical things that you want to be accessible to your community. So if it’s a place that’s walkable, it’s accessible to more people. So we’re seeing a lot of that.

The other thing we’re seeing a lot of — you mentioned storefronts — but we’re also seeing a lot of classy office buildings that have been vacant — and becoming more vacant as more people work from home — converted to housing. So that’s been an interesting adaptive reuse sort of post-pandemic. And I think that’ll continue because it solves two problems: It solves the problem of these office buildings going empty and it’s addressing the housing crisis that’s happening nationwide.

Sarah Steimer 12:55
I’m actually glad you mentioned the medical office one because I — back in my hometown for maybe about nine months — I worked at a Family Video. And as we all know, Family Videos don’t really exist too much anywhere. I think I’ve seen one in the past five years. And that was actually converted to a medical office. So it still has that very Family Video look, but it’s now, you know, just I think it is a testing facility. I’m glad that you brought that up.

So Ava, if you are going to make like basically the elevator pitch to a company in a small to midsize city to consider adaptive reuse, versus maybe building right outside of the city or, you know, they found a plot of land somewhere and you know, they want to dig up that green space, what would be your pitch to them for why they should consider maybe an empty building somewhere in the town center?

Ava Alltmont 13:57
Yeah, I mean, I think if they were, if a company coming in were to revive a building that’s been sort of sitting vacant, I think they’d be probably welcomed by that community. You know, they’re coming into the community. But they’re also investing in that community in a way that’s more connected to that community than if you were to build something new construction, you know, outside of the town center.

In addition to that, I think it would help attract employees and help attract talent, because, you know, folks will have to come into the town instead of having to go out to some corporate park somewhere. And so with that, it starts to trigger some sort of economic development in that downtown. So you have more people downtown because of a company that’s decided to locate their offices there. Well, maybe a couple of lunch spots start to open to cater to those workers that are now working there. And then that could also trigger some new housing that happens.

So there’s a whole ripple effect that can happen and it could really, if the company is, I guess large enough or the impact is large enough, it could really have big economic impacts to smaller communities, for sure. You see it in big cities all the time. But to have, you know, a company move into a small, small community that doesn’t see doesn’t see large companies come in, you know, it gives them a sense of pride as well.

Sarah Steimer 15:23
This really, I mean, it sounds like it really plays back into what we were talking about, which is that quality of life. And, you know, we’ve seen how much people are drawn to cities that have a high quality of life in them, you know, Minneapolis, maybe Denver, places like that, where people are really drawn to those small to midsize cities, because there is an opportunity there for sort of like their whole life, this wellness within their full life. And so of course, a company is going to automatically benefit by way of that if they can kind of feed into that. So it feels like a really great opportunity to be cyclical with that, within being cyclical within the life of the building. So it feels like there’s a big theme there where it’s almost like recycling: with the building recycling, and of the energy that goes into the city.

Ava Alltmont 16:16
Yeah, that’s a great way to put it, just kind of a rebirth, the reverberation. Yep. Agree.

Sarah Steimer 16:24
Ava, that was actually most of the questions I had for you today. Was there anything I didn’t mention, though, and I realized I just cut you off. I apologize. Was there anything else about adaptive reuse, especially in these cities that maybe don’t think of it immediately, like a denser city would, that you wanted to mention?

Ava Alltmont 16:45
Yeah, I mean, I think we covered it. The biggest thing I see with adaptive reuse is that it’s really a sustainable form of urban renewal. So you know, you can really, just by breathing new life into a building, it really can start to transform a community and just, you know, really uplift that community.

Sarah Steimer 17:03
In so many ways. Ava, thank you so much for your time today.

Producer 17:17
Music for Good, Thoughtful Hosts was written, produced, and performed by Sam Clapp. Our moderator is Sarah Steimer. Editing by Travis Estvold. And a special thanks to our content development team, Amanda Herzberg and Marni Moore. For more information about the podcast, visit Thanks for listening!

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