Engineering Rome

Adaptive Reuse of Ancient Buildings in Rome


The idea of “green buildings” has been rapidly growing around the world since the 1970s due to the energy crisis. Today, green building projects make up about 50% of new construction projects (Green 2015). When people hear the words green building they think of projects that focus on new technology and building techniques to reduce energy consumption and are a modern architectural design. An alternative in green building design that is not thought of as often is called adaptive reuse. This refers to the reuse of a building or site for a purpose that it was not designed for originally. It is often more environmentally friendly to retrofit an old building than to build a new “green” building. According to “The Greenest Building: Quantifying the Environmental Value of Building Reuse”, it can take 10 to 80 years for a new energy efficient building to counteract the negative environmental ‍impacts ‍of constructing it (The Greenest 2011). Although the concept and popularity of green buildings is a relatively new idea, the Romans have been using this technique of adaptive reuse for centuries. Examples of this can be seen walking down most streets in Rome where you’ll see everything from old columns left in the sides of buildings to buildings whose foundations are ancient ruins (see Figures 1 and 2 below). In this article, the main concepts of adaptive reuse will be discussed and applied to multiple sites in Rome. We will take a closer look at the Teatro Marcello, Castel Sant’Angelo, and the Basilica di San Clemente as examples of adaptive reuse in ‍Rome‍.

Figure 1: Column left in side of wall

Figure 2: Reuse of decorations

Adaptive Reuse

Adaptive reuse is the term used to describe the reuse of older buildings nearing the end of their life cycle that are renovated to serve a new tenant and purpose. Often these buildings have become obsolete or redundant due to changes in the culture of the area or to changing demand for their services (Yung 2014). This building method can be seen in many major cities today; reusing everything from old schoolhouses to old industrial sites. These sites are converted into housing complexes, art museums, hotels, office spaces, and retail stores – or anything that needs a new space. Adaptive reuse is often used as a way to preserve historic buildings so that they can continue to shape the community and receive the maintenance and upkeep they need so that they will be preserved for future generations. It can also help to revitalize old neighborhoods and bring revenue into poorer areas.

There are multiple types of adaptive reuse which correspond to how much of the building can be reused. The first type of reuse is when the above ground structure of the building is reusable. For this type of reuse the above ground structure must be in a good enough condition to be reused and the interior and exterior geometry of the building must be functional for the new use or can be easily expanded upon to accommodate the new purpose. The materials of the building must also be able to sustain the new loads that would be placed on it during construction or due to the new tenants requirements. The second type is when the basement can be reused. The space and layout of the basement and its load bearing capacity must be able to accommodate the either the new above ground structure or the updated one. The third type of reuse is foundation reuse. Reusing the foundation comes with multiple problems but is necessary if any of the building is to be reused. If the above ground structure and the basement have to be replaced then the foundation would undergo unloading and reloading which could cause additional settlement of the foundation because of soil relaxation. If the new loads on the foundation are not greater than the previous load then the foundation can be reused (Laefer 2008). Depending on which parts of the building are fit to be reused, one of the three different scenarios for reuse can be used. The first situation is one where only the foundation can be reused if the above ground structure and the basement are deemed unfit to be reused. The second is if only the above ground structure cannot be reused but the foundation and basement can be. The third is if all three parts of the structure can be reused. The third option is the best as it saves the most money and has the least environmental impact but is also the hardest to do as all parts of the building must be able to meet all of the requirements for reuse. Even though total reuse is the most desirable option, any reuse is beneficial as it reduces the cost and environmental impact of the project when compared to new construction.

Benefits of Adaptive Reuse

The main benefits of adaptive reuse are related to ‍energy use and emissions reductions, cost savings, a faster construction schedule, and decreased liability exposure. Material transport to new construction project sites uses a lot of energy, time and money. Disposing of materials from demolition uses a lot of energy and space in landfills. By avoiding demolition, removal, and reconstruction of an old building there is less energy used and fewer materials sent to landfills (Laefer 2008). Labor costs go down because the work related to demolition, reconstruction, material transport, and waste disposal is reduced. Material costs go down as well as far less materials are required to restore an older building than to rebuild one from scratch. When the foundation is reused, large excavation costs are saved through labor, equipment, soil transport, and waste removal costs. Foundation reuse also allows for improved constructibility and soil performance. Crowded subsurface conditions can make foundation installation difficult and costly. The problem of clay-heaving (see Figure 3) and settlement from removal and reinstallation of the foundation and basement of the building are reduced or eliminated. Foundation reuse also avoids the need for excavation support which can damage adjacent buildings.

Clay Heave.jpg
Figure 3: Clay-heaving and lateral expansion due to foundation removal

Foundation reuse also avoids problems related to lowered foundation capacity due to foundation removal. Less utility relocation will be necessary which typically requires a great deal of coordination and time. This minimizes service interruptions as well as saving time and money. There are also indirect cost savings from a shortened schedule length. When the schedule length is shortened the chance for delays, accidents, and liabilities is reduced. Noise pollution in the area due to construction is also reduced (Laefer 2008).

One of the largest and most comprehensive studies done on adaptive reuse of buildings is “The Greenest Building: Quantifying the Environmental Value of Building Reuse” done by the Preservation Green Lab and other contributors. Six different types of buildings including single-family residential, multi-family residential, urban village mixed-use, commercial office building, elementary schools, and a warehouse conversion were analyzed using ‍Life Cycle Assessment (LCA). ‍LCA is a widely used method of evaluating the environmental and human health impacts associated with products and services throughout their life time. LCA considers the life cycle to happen in a series of steps starting with extraction of raw materials and ending with demolition and disposal of materials. The study examined four different categories of environmental impact which included climate change, human health, ecosystem quality, and resource depletion. The study found that building reuse almost always creates fewer environmental impacts than new construction when comparing buildings of similar size and functionality. The amount of environmental savings from building reuse varied widely based on the type of building, location, and assumed energy efficiency. Most all of the building types tested showed environmental ‍savings ‍about 4-46% higher for reused buildings over new construction of similar size and functionality over a 75-year period. The warehouse to multifamily residential type was the exception in that there were actually lower environmental savings when compared to new construction. The warehouse conversion had a 1-6% greater environmental impact. This is attributed to multiple factors, the most prominent being the type and amount of materials used in its reconstruction. This study showed that the repurposed buildings had greater immediate environmental savings than new construction. It also showed that new construction had a great initial negative environmental impact but due to its higher energy efficiency closes the gap between it and the repurposed building so that they will reach a point they call the “year of carbon equivalency”. The average time for the environmental impact to equalize was about 42 years (The Greenest 2011).

In a case study comparing adaptability, three different historic buildings in the San Francisco area were investigated in detail to showcase how effective adaptive reuse can have positive impacts on sustainability and building life span. The three buildings that were evaluated were the International Center to End Violence, the Walt Disney Family Museum, and the Presidio 101 and 103 buildings. All of the projects were located in the Presidio of San Francisco, a large national park located at the southern end of the Golden Gate Bridge. The location of these buildings presented a design difficulty in upgrading the ‍earthquake ‍performance of the buildings while maintaining their existing appearance, as San Francisco is an area of high seismic activity. Each building had an updated lateral system and new architectural design for the interior of the building. They were then evaluated using building LCA. All three of the buildings were found to result in a decrease in the global warming potential of the energy in the structural ‍system over a life span of 50-years ‍(Maclise 2013).

Issues with Adaptive Reuse

In most studies relating to adaptive reuse and sustainability, reuse was deemed the more environmentally friendly alternative to new construction. Even though this method is preferable because of cost impacts and environmental impacts, there are a few issues that cause developers to not want to use this method. The first is that in urban areas there is a large financial incentive to maximize the use of space on a site. The developer would want to build as high and as close to the property line as possible so that they could make the most of the space while building an impressive high rise building. This causes developers to often look for developable land instead of buildings to retrofit. Another issue is that the environmental costs associated with the construction and demolition are external to the developer which gives them incentive to demolish and rebuild since they cannot directly reap the cost benefits. Often, retrofitting is seen to have much more risk than new construction. This is because it can be less predictable and more susceptible to unforeseen challenges once the project in underway‍. Building codes and regulations are a large barrier to retrofitting‍. Codes often favor new construction and do not adapt well to the unique situations presented by building reuse. Finally, the existing building simply may not be able to accommodate the function of the new building or fit into the context of the neighborhood (The Greenest 2011). With cities evolving, new construction will always be necessary.

History of Adaptive Reuse in Rome

Even though the term adaptive reuse is relatively new in today’s engineering and architectural professions, the Romans have been reusing materials and repurposing old buildings for the past 2000 years. It started in the late republic of Rome (123 to 23 BC) when selling materials from old buildings was a popular business (Jacks 2008). At first this was a large problem for preservation of these older buildings as many of them were being demolished so that the materials could be reused and sold. There were multiple laws enacted to try and stop this sort of trade. The first was in 44 AD by Hosidianus and Volusianus, followed by Vespasian between 69-79, and finally by Alexander Severus in 222. None of these laws seemed to stop people from reusing and selling materials from old buildings as we can see today by looking at ancient buildings around Rome. Even Alexander Severus who had passed laws regulating the trade restored the Porticus Octaviae by reusing column shafts and entablatures of Pentelic marble (Jacks 2008). He was not the only emperor to reuse materials when they were building a new monument or building. Commodus updated the Colossus of Nero to resemble himself as the sun god Helios. Constantine’s triumphal arch (Figure 4), dedicated in 315, is full of reused pieces from earlier monuments. The reused decorations include reliefs of Marcus Aurelius (with the faces replaced with that of Constantine) on the attic, reliefs of Trajan in the passageway of the arch, roundels of Hadrian on the face of the arch, and the columns, capitals, and architraves. The reuse of these decorations was seen to be a way of solidifying Constantine’s power over Rome by setting himself equal to great leaders of the past.

Figure 4: Arch of Constantine

In 379 when Theodosius became the emperor of Rome, the official state religion was changed to Christianity. They took away the responsibility of the prefects to upkeep the ancient temples in the city as they no longer served a purpose as a public building. They needed to either demolish or repurpose the pagan buildings to solidify Rome as a Christian state. In 458, a judicial order required Roman citizens to remove any ornamentation from ruined buildings to be reused for public projects. This mass removal stopped just short of destruction of these buildings as they could be reused for Christian worship. This law and the repurposing of these buildings is what saved them from being completely lost. In many areas of the Roman Empire, clerics saw the need to rid pagan cult sites of their demons. This meant rededicating pagan sites to figures in Christianity by covering up old art work and adding new images among other things. The approach was a little different in Rome. The Popes decided to focus more on the Roman Forum as it was full of imperial and ‘profane’ buildings. The former audience hall and adjoining library were turned into the church of Santi Cosma e Damiano. The Curis Senates was rededicated to Sant’Adriano. The ‍Pantheon ‍was the first of many Roman temples that were officially converted into a Christian church when it was dedicated to S Maria ad Omnes Martyres in 609. The images on the attic of the Pantheon were removed. In the Figure 5 below, the holes in the facing of the attic show ‍‍where sculptures and reliefs that were removed would have been.

Figure 5: Facade of the Pantheon

This is seen around most of the ruins and ancient buildings in Rome which shows us how widespread the repurposing of buildings was during this time period.

The San Nicola church in Carcere is another example of a temple that was repurposed into a church. It differs from the reuse of the Pantheon in that many parts were completely rebuilt instead of only changing the ornamentation on and inside the temple. The basilica of San Nicola was built over the ruins of three temples in the Forum Hoitorium. The fortified tower of the church was built partly over the podium of the northernmost temple and partially included the front columns of the middle temple. The architraves were shored into the wall with fieldstone and rubble and pier buttresses were added around the inner chamber of the ancient temple. On the south side of the church Doric columns from the southernmost temple were embedded in the wall of the church and used to support beams in this side of the church.

During the Renaissance, architects studied those temples to learn more about ‍Vitruvius‘ ‍writings and the building methods used in ancient Rome while disregarding the additions to the temples during the Christian repurposing. Also during this period, many families wanted to reuse antiquities as it boosted their status through showing their Roman lineage and to obtain territorial advantage.

Jumping forward to the 20th century, we see another period of reuse of ancient ruins in Rome when Italy was under Fascist leadership. The ruins were reused in an ideological way. Fascism wanted to connect itself with the grandeur of the Roman Empire. The ruins were used as the wings of parades for Mussolini and the main element in his idea of ‘public use of history’ (Federici 2011). The Master Plan for Mussolini’s fascist Rome wanted to move the focus of the city away from the historic center and expand the city. His plan included building the EUR as the new city center, large avenues to create order in the city, and uncovering and restoring old ruins to show the triumphs of the Roman Empire.

Throughout Rome’s long history of adaptive reuse it is evident that Romans were very logical in their methods of building. They reused buildings not for architectural purposes or to preserve the history. In most cases, it was easiest and cheapest to simply give the building a new function or to reuse materials from a building located very close to the new project as it was expensive to create and transport new materials. It was thus a logical decision to reuse. This is often why the most reuse projects were done during periods when Rome’s financial situation was less than ideal.

We will now go into more detail with specific examples of adaptive reuse that can be seen in Rome. Below is a map showing the locations of these sites.