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Interior of the Lot Fourteen allied health building featuring wooden floors and two seating areas.

A former car factory evolves into a highly awarded innovation district, fostering advanced manufacturing under its stunning five-hectare roof. An electrical components plant is transformed into a wildly popular market and an old hospital is adapted to become a welcoming neighbourhood for inspiring entrepreneurs and future industries.

Tonsley Innovation District, Plant 4 at Bowden and Lot Fourteen – all state government projects overseen by Renewal SA – are local examples of adaptive reuse: the process of repurposing old buildings for new uses while celebrating their intrinsic heritage value. It’s an approach gaining traction around the world as an environmentally sustainable way to create places for work, recreation and living that offer unique appeal and longevity.

The vast Main Assembly Building, or MAB, at Tonsley in Adelaide’s south has been reimagined as a light-filled pavilion and recognised with a string of awards, including the World Architecture News Award for Adaptive Reuse and the Australian Institute of Architects Award for Sustainable Architecture. Its commercial appeal is demonstrated by the fact that there are now 37 businesses at Tonsley and more than 1700 people working there, more than when the last car rolled off the Mitsubishi production line in 2008, and about 8000 students each year.

At Bowden, the Plant 4 market is bustling under the saw-tooth roof of the former components factory, attracting thousands of people from across Adelaide. It is the beating heart of this inner city neighbourhood, once a centre of heavy industry.

In consultation with the local community, the derelict former gasworks site on Bowden’s western side is being transformed into a pedestrian friendly precinct, offering commercial, residential and community activity. All three state heritage-listed structures and five others will be adaptively reused, including the striking 21-metre high Gasworks Chimney and an imposing bluestone wall on Chief Street.

Conservation architect David Brown of Butcher Brown Architects is a consultant and design architect for Lot Fourteen and was on the Office of Design and Architecture SA panel for Tonsley’s early development.

He says historic buildings that have been sensitively adapted for new uses tell a story in a way that cannot be matched by new builds, which is part of their enduring appeal.

“People realise what you get out of adaptive reuse– it’s not just new floorspace, it’s new floorspace with instant character, appeal and history that can’t be replicated,” he says.

“It’s like New York loft apartments, people want them because they are quirky and interesting, and they’re intrinsically linked to that city.

“The state heritage buildings being refurbished at Lot Fourteen, at the eastern end of North Terrace, are exactly what people expect to see on Adelaide’s grand, cultural boulevard.”

Brown says these buildings are rare South Australian examples of Interwar Freestyle Classicism. “They are elegant in an unusual way, with decorative columns, intricate detailing of shields and weapons on the exteriors, even cast metal turrets on the Allied Health and Bice buildings. Inside, you find features such as soaring windows with arches, high ceilings, elaborate architraves and elegant staircases.”

Brown says adapted old buildings are environmentally sustainable because the materials are reused, rather than sent to landfill and replaced with new resources. The fact that they were built to last means they can be readapted again in the future.

Simon Dodd is a Director of JPE Design Studio, another local firm working on the heritage buildings at Lot Fourteen. He says the appeal of adaptive reuse has become mainstream.

“For many years public and private sectors clients wanted modern, glass boxes for work spaces. Now people want something with a bit of history, fabric, and texture.

“This idea of adaptive reuse has become aspirational, and not just for the expected creative industry clients like advertising agencies and design studios. Now there’s a huge thirst from the corporate sector seeking out something authentic as a unique workplace that will help attract and retain the best talent.”

Renewal SA is developing accessible, connected and vibrant places where people want to live, work and invest.

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