Category Archives: business

Reviving Newcastle

It can take a heroic effort to bring an ailing city district back to life but often all it takes to spark it off is one person or one small group. Marcus Westbury‘s efforts to revive Hunter Street, the ailing main street of the Australian industrial city of Newcastle (think rustbelt if you are not in Australia) have certainly been heroic. He is staging a “Renewing Newcastle” information night tomorrow night Wednesday 10th of September at 6:30pm. The venue is the Lock Up (next to the now derelict Post Office) at 90 Hunter Street Newcastle.

Vacant shopfronts in the Newcastle CBD should be opened up to community arts and not-for-profit groups, under control of a property trust that assists building owners with tax concessions.

The idea is simple enough, it’s worked before, but can it work here?

It was pretty amazing to watch the numbers rising on his facebook site when he sent out invitations so here’s hoping it will work. If you are anywhere near there make sure you attend.

Renovation madness

As you may have noticed, we’ve been doing a bit of renovation.

home renovation mess

We may have been slow with the posts last year due to unavoidable circumstances but we were thinking hard. Let’s be blunt about it, this blog started off as an amusing diversion, turned a bit obsessive then got partly derailed by physical frailty. Nonetheless its readership has continued to creep up way beyond anything we had expected so we were faced with a dilemma, just keep spluttering along or get a bit more serious about it.

Getting serious partly means “monetising” as they say in the trade. “Monetising” is of course a bit of a joke, our optimistic hope is that we’ll make enough to buy each of us at least one cafe latte per month, but putting in the Amazon bookshop allows us to select a range of interesting and relevant books. We spend a lot of our time dredging through Amazon and other book stores so it was a logical move. The real joke is that Amazon, in its technical brilliance, is unable to pay anyone outside the US in anything other than credits – no EFTs for them – so if we make any money we”ll have to spend it on books. Talk about working for the company store!

More importantly, getting serious means expanding our scope a bit and turning this blog into a real adaptive reuse resource as well as a site for our self indulgent commentary. Of course we’ll continue with the current thread of commentary but we’d like to start another thread showcasing the more conventional but often exemplary conversions and renovations that we have tended to ignore simply because there are so many of them. Since every architecture firm on the planet now claims to be expert in adaptive reuse we have no doubt that you are all champing at the bit to send us info on your latest project. If we can slowly build up a gallery of projects we hope that we can create a resource base that will help advance adaptive reuse as a universal strategy. You can email us at and soon we will have a special send-us-your-ideas contact form when we manage to fix up the nightmare that is emails and PHP and WordPress. (Yes our beautiful contact us form doesn’t work, your message will go nowhere until further notice, cforms is the greatest WordPress plugin ever but the whole thing still doesn’t play.)   You can now contact us via our special send-us-your-ideas form or our contact-us form on the menu above.

We’ve also moved links so we have room to do more with them, and we’ve done a bit of redecorating, increased the type size for tired, computer wrecked eyes (have you noticed that “serious” blogs use smaller type, it’s like the snobbery about tabloid and broadsheet newspapers) and as a result we now have a cleaner simpler page, despite the added advertising. For those who are into that sort of thing we’re using a Sandbox theme called Essay (thanks Ian Stewart, great design) but we’ve hacked it about so much we’ve destroyed its essential integrity which was its 28px grid. If you want to see it in a purer form have a look at one of our other blogs where we have used it with only slight modifications.

We’ll introduce a few more changes in coming months. Meanwhile, we’d love to hear your comments, suggestions and ideas.

Big sustainability ain’t hard

One of the main arguments for adaptive reuse is sustainability, by extending a building’s life you save its embodied energy, and the bigger the building the more you save. If the building is in the US and you can achieve Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification as a sustainable building you gain other advantages as some US states now provide additional tax incentives.

The Montgomery Park adaptive reuse of a 1925 Art Deco style warehouse is a typical example. The 1.3 million square foot Baltimore building had been abandoned for 15 years when it was purchased by developers Himmelrich Associates and converted to offices. The State of Maryland came to the party with tax credits worth 40 cents in the dollar that ensured its financial viability.

LEED certification came through a range of strategies. The most important in adaptive reuse terms were

  • the redevelopment of an existing urban site.
  • it involved remediation of a brownfield site (although contamination was limited).
  • The site’s easy access to the city’s major bus lines enabled a public transport strategy.

Other sustainability techniques included retention of stormwater on site and some used in greywater system, partial green roof to minimise heat island effect, waterless urinals and energy efficient ice storage air conditioning system, recycling of building waste as paving, reuse of existing carpet tiles, insulated glazing with minimum perimeter offices to maximise daylight combined with energy efficient motion controlled lighting and low formaldehyde interior finishes and materials.

The finished building demonstrates how a considerable degree of sustainability can be achieved fairly simply.

The fact that the developer seem to have developed a taste for adaptive reuse projects is probably proof that sustainability pays. Montgomery Park is their second project, they have another smaller development nearby of Mt Washington Mill, Maryland’s oldest surviving cotton mill, dating from 1811, now housing retail and offices.

Floating world

All this dutch design brilliance may soon amount to nought. Approximately 60% of the Netherlands are lower than sea level, not a good place to be in a century where sea levels may well rise 5 metres or more. Many studies are pessimistic about the country’s survival while others are already planning for a floating world,

from the domestic scale

to entire communities and even cities.

In a very real sense they face one of the greatest adaptive reuse questions imaginable – can the technology of seacraft really be adapted to the scale of an entire city? Is it even worth trying?

The technology is developing and prototypes exist already, such as this floating airport in Tokyo Bay. But despite its enormous scale it is puny compared to the scale required in the Netherlands. And not just in the Netherlands.

Here is a proposal for floating communities in a flooded Thames Estuary,

including the return of the adaptively reused hulks of superannuated ships and other vessels like oil rigs.

There is even a Seasteading movement which aims to adapt oil rig technology to create floating communities at sea.

It all seems a strange approach to the problem of climate change. Are we a bit naive in thinking that a more effective approach might be to make everything smaller rather than larger and to simply move somewhere else rather than waste scarce resources fighting the inevitable? Or is the explanation that there is money in grandiosity and none in downscaling? Will humanity end up like those lung cancer sufferers who still smoke even on their deathbed?

The blogging art

Although the essay in its adapted blog form is not yet the essay of Bacon, Montaigne, Addison or Orwell you can nonetheless see what may lie in the future as the form refines itself. Brief and pointed, visual as well as literary, loaded with allusion and subterranean complexity via links, and potentially collaborative and open ended through its comments, the blog essay has a great future.

Why this self reflexive ruminating? A post on BLDGBLOG, one of our favourite blogs, about the beauty and future reuses of oil drilling platforms that begins with the author’s discovery of this advertisement. There are times when you just have to stand back and admire. But don’t take my word for it, read the original post here, and its follow up here.

Pedal power

We were delighted to get an email from Ben Denham (thanks for the kind remarks) where he sent us some links to sites about bicycle powered machines. Mayapedal produce bikes, trailers etc, but also a range of bicycles adaptively reused to power machines

that perform a range of agricultural tasks like dehusking,

pumping water,

even washing clothes.

Our favourite was the bicycle blender, probably because we do like our banana smoothies and it will probably do margaritas as well. As Ben said

It gives you a whole new perspective on the stationary exercise bike. I always thought they were an absurd invention but this just goes to show that so long as the energy that you are generating is sensibly harnessed the stationary bike is actually one of the most beautifully efficient pieces of machinery you could imagine.

He also sent us a type of man bites dog story. We had been musing on the strange proliferation of chairs made out of bike parts,

his link was to a project to make a bike trailer out of aluminium chair parts. Eureka! If we could combine these into a pedal-powered banana chair so that you could lie down while exercising while also blending we would have the recumbent-exercise-bike-smoothie-and-margarita-maker (REBSAMM).

Now, we all laugh at recumbent bikes but they are actually far more efficient than the normal bike, and promoted by the great engineer Paul McCready in his role as president of the International Human Powered Vehicle Association. McCready is known as the father of human powered flight because he designed and built the first workable human powered plane, first solar powered plane, GM’s electric car and various other forms of efficient and comparatively environmentally sound hi-tech transport. He is also on the board of the Society of Amateur Scientists (Citizen Scientists, Unite!).

And in case you were wondering whatever happened to his pedal powered plane that once flew across the English Channel, well, it’s in the Smithsonian but its related technologies seem to have been captured by the US military who are probably adapting them to their own evil ends. It’s all too depressing, just pedal me another margarita.

Too late, they cried

Like George Bush, Australia’s Prime Minister John Howard is multi-skilled, he’s a climate criminal as well as a war criminal. In fact when most thinking people have seen climate change as an urgent issue for the last ten years he has sabotaged every effort to deal with it….but we’ll leave that discussion for his trial (and we have no doubt that he is one of the many current politicians who will eventually be seen in the same light as nazi collaborators were at the end of WWII).

But surprisingly in the last few years he has become an advocate of adaptive reuse of a sort, the adaptive reuse of exhausted oil and gas fields for carbon geo-sequestration.

It’s an untried technology that can’t possibly be operational for about fifteen years, well after its too late to make much difference, but he’s resting all his hopes on it while attempting to handicap tried and proven renewable energy sources like solar and wind. It’s yet another attempt at denial, a scam to continue business as usual while reinforcing the power of the people who got us into this mess in the first place. As The Age noted, Australia leads the world:

A recent Australia Institute study shows that Australia produces 27 per cent more greenhouse gases per capita than the next culprit, the United States, and emissions are more than double the per capita average for industrialised countries.

It is not only on a per head basis that Australian emissions are significant. The country’s total volume of annual greenhouse gas emissions exceeds those of France and Italy, each of which has about three times Australia’s population.

New Matilda has an excellent article laying out the necessary parameters of any debate on climate change and you can check out the Australia Institute site for numerous papers on the politics of climate change in Australia. Institute Executive Director Dr Clive Hamilton says

“Mr Howard is determined to bail out the coal industry even if it means we must wait another 10-15 years before ‘clean coal’ technologies become viable. We have lost ten years with the Howard Government’s denial, obfuscation and bloodymindedness; we simply cannot afford to lose another ten years before we tackle the most severe threat to our future. For a decade the Government has been trying to persuade us that throwing a bucket of money at industry will deal with climate change. It has not worked so far and will not work in the future. The only answer is to mobilise market forces to cut greenhouse gas emissions by putting a price on carbon. There is no alternative.”

Although we half heartedly support the development of clean coal technologies this must be the first example of adaptive reuse that doesn’t interest us much.

Trains that don’t run on time

I had never heard of the amazing “norry”, the bamboo railway of Battambang province, Cambodia, until a few nights ago when it was on ABC’s Foreign Correspondent programme, so I googled it and discovered I was probably the last person in the world to hear about it. Check out this tourist blog, for instance, where I got some of these photos, or here or here (thank you all, whoever wherever you are).

The norry is an illegal rail system that runs on more or less unused old rail lines. The carriages are flat bamboo platforms on wheels made from tank track runners

and powered by a two stroke motor. It is easily assembled and disassembled so if you meet another norry coming in the opposite direction the one with the lightest load is pulled apart so the other can pass.

It’s a delightful bit of technology, an adaptive reuse of the old French colonial rail system that fell into disuse and disrepair after the Khmer Rouge banned its use. Throughout the developed world governments have destroyed public railway systems as a way of clandestinely assisting their patrons in the car, oil and road construction industries. The Khmer Rouge took this approach one step further by killing everyone involved with the colonial railway.

In the years since, with roads barely passable or riddled with landmines, the old rail lines have been taken over by inventive villagers who have developed what could be described as an open source railway – home made, self managed and safe.

I particularly like the joke first class section, consisting of two mats on the floor. If only the rest of the world’s inequality was that trivial.

There is one aspect of it all that really amuses me. In some ways it was the development of rail that led to that crucial early marker of modernity, our whole modern system of universal standard time. Is this the only post modern railway, the one railway in the world that doesn’t need to run on time?

Raptop computer….

that’s what it says, honest, go see for yourself. Although the site does seem to have lost something in the translation, or at least adaptively reused the english language.

However, we did like the way the bell was described as “The latest foppery equipment” and that morse key mouse has a strange appeal. We found it on Make. It’s perfect for accessing an internet that is a series of toobs.