• April 22, 2022

There’s no question: The climate crisis requires unprecedented and immediate action if humankind is going to mitigate the devastating impacts of its past actions on the future of the world’s ecosystems, biodiversity, and communities.

Change is possible. The future isn’t set in stone, and neither is our way of creating built environments. As architects, designers, and change-makers, we are part of a huge ongoing shift in practice where the 3 R’s of reduce, reuse, and recycle are being applied to architecture and urban centers around the world.

The future lies in the decisions we make: We can prioritize applying the strategies of retrofit, revitalize, and reuse to what has already been built in ways that allow the places we live, work, and celebrate life to last for generations, or we can demolish what we have, extract new materials, and build something that requires new materials and more emissions.

The three R’s in architecture

Climate change presents an opportunity for us to innovate and adapt to the impacts we have had on our world, from the architecture we inhabit to developing landscapes that deepen our connection to the natural world. The possibilities of that innovation and adaptation lie in retrofitting, revitalizing and reusing.

When we retrofit, we modify existing buildings to improve that building’s performance, new or old; when we revitalize, we breathe life back into deteriorating structures; when we strategically reuse, we can find whole new purposes for the past.

Many of our projects are a testament to how the built environments already around us are in need of discovery, not demolition:

It’s this kind of recycling and upcycling mindset in architecture and design that can help in the reduction of carbon emissions and meet our ambitious and necessary climate change targets. For Hugo Lafrance, Lemay’s Director of Sustainability, reusing what has already been built through adaptive reuse is among the architecture world’s top priorities.

“Reuse and the renovation of existing buildings is a way we can limit urban sprawl and maximize the use of existing infrastructure, and also one of the best ways to reduce the use of new resources,” he explains, pointing to adaptive reuse and the reduction of carbon emissions as top priorities right now.

A recycling mindset comes first

Recycling our world’s built infrastructure should be normalized as our first reflex before looking to build, says Grace Coulter Sherlock, architect and Lemay’s Regional Director for Western Canada.

“After decades of building new, we now have an immense wealth of existing buildings that are ill-suited or underutilized,” she explains.

“A greener future sees designers working with our clients and jurisdictions to find solutions for assessing what’s already built and adapting it to incorporate and amplify the best sustainable practices—thus salvaging the embodied energy and resources.”

Recycling built infrastructure takes planning and investigative work, where a robust exploration can take place early in the architectural process with a transdisciplinary approach where clients, consultants and all disciplines involved can collaborate in the design practice. It takes time and effort, but it’s worth it.

Having worked with her team extensively in reviving heritage structures such as the rehabilitation of Calgary’s historic city hall and Centennial Planetarium, Grace adds that the benefits of reusing, retrofitting and revitalizing preexisting structures go further than the environmental and into the cultural memory of place.

“You can get really rich spaces with retrofits, adaptive reuse and revitalizing old features. People enjoy and seek out the beauty that comes with  the patina of what’s old ,” she says. “It’s interesting, unique and atmospheric, and the most sustainable way that we can work with creating built environments.”

When we look at how much waste could have been reduced from the materials and construction of new buildings, how much of our existing infrastructure could be reused, and how much can be transformed into something entirely new through recycling?

We see a wealth of resources to create with, objects with second lives, and potential.

Learn more about Lemay’s sustainability practices with Net Positive™, a rigorous and award-winning framework for maximizing sustainable strategies.