As we look ahead, future-proofing is a critical element to designing buildings that will last longer, be operationally flexible, conserve resources, and reduce carbon impact in the face of a changing climate. Those discussions often focus on contemporary, high-tech facilities—particularly for commercial, academic, or institutional clients. At Moody Nolan, where I serve as the director of classical architecture based out of the Columbus, Ohio office, we believe adaptive reuse—the act of repurposing an existing structure for a new program or purpose—should be part of every project. These considerations contribute toward our ambition of designing for a low-carbon, equitable, built environment, specifically by reducing embodied carbon impacts of demolition and new construction, and by exploring opportunities to reuse materials instead of manufacturing new.

With adaptive reuse projects, it’s vital to consider the flexibility of the space, especially for our higher-ed and commercial clients which need the ability to grow their organizations agilely. Still, it is equally, if not even more important for projects that serve as community hubs. Be they houses of worship, community centers, or housing, these structures need to be flexible and adaptable to accommodate ever-changing programs and best serve their missions and users.

The conversation around sustainability is growing in the industry, too. More than 1,000 firms, Moody Nolan included, have adopted the AIA 2030 Challenge, a climate strategy aimed at making all new buildings and major renovations carbon-neutral by the year 2030 to curb the building sector’s impact on our climate. This is particularly important as we consider the renovation of existing buildings as approximately two-thirds of the global building area will still exist in 2040.

Revitalizing an Iconic Church

Saint Mary Catholic Church in Columbus, Ohio.
Sam Brown Saint Mary Catholic Church in Columbus, Ohio.

For decades, I have been working with these adaptive reuse principles in ecclesiastical and other traditional building typologies. Before joining Moody Nolan in 2019, my firm—David B. Meleca Architects—completed the renovation of Saint Mary Catholic Church in Columbus, Ohio’s German Village neighborhood after the 1893 structure was struck by lightning. TheCatholic Diocese of Columbus temporarily condemned the church due to damage caused by the lightning strike and previously undiscovered structural issues. Still, the community did not want to see St. Mary, or its school, close.

The cost to rebuild this German Village icon to its previous ornate stature would not have been possible, which is why preserving original materials at all cost was critical. Some of the preserved materials include a rare limestone that is no longer being quarried, as well as the stained glass originally imported from Germany and custom made for the building. By taking this approach, we were able to complete this project sustainably and economically, while maintaining the artwork, cultural significance, and a shared legacy of artifacts.

The renovation included not just the necessary (and extensive) structural repair, replicating the intricate paintings on the interior, re-leading of the stained-glass windows, and restoring the altars—it also included subtle changes to future-proof the sanctuary for its changing congregation. The reality is that Catholic parishes are consolidating nationwide due to a lack of priests and lagging attendance, so we wanted to make sure that St. Mary could adapt to a fluctuating congregation. Because of this, we added more seating and reconfigured pews to add capacity for any growth due to consolidation. This also accommodated different preferences and needs, including if members wanted to sit more spaced out, as well as making the sanctuary ADA accessible through ramps and dedicated wheelchair seating to accommodate everyone. We added more rooms to the space with windows, assisting with natural light and HVAC efficiency. Separate from church renovations, we also developed a master plan to accommodate growth at the school, which is planning to double in size and capacity in order to accommodate the Catholic school closures in the area and increased enrollment due to high academic standards. All of this contributed to making the church a place that could welcome worshipers from other parishes over time, while ensuring it can face the future head-on as a beloved anchor for its community’s changing needs.

Rebuilding a Vibrant Community Landmark

The Knights of Columbus building in 2020.
User:M on Wikipedia The Knights of Columbus building in 2020.

Elsewhere in downtown Columbus, our team at Moody Nolan is in the early stages of transforming the historic Knights of Columbus building, which was originally designed by Richards, McCarty & Bulford and built in the mid-1920s. The building, which holds a grand ballroom, bowling alley, swimming pool, gymnasium, and other facilities, served as a community hub for decades as the Salesian Boys and Girls Club and later as the Bosco Center. Yet it had been sitting vacant since 2017. In 2018, it was declared one of the most endangered landmarks in the city by the Columbus Landmarks organization. Rather than raze it and lose both the structure’s history and embodied carbon, our team is working to preserve landmarked spaces and convert others into a vibrant community space encompassing 80 units of much-needed affordable housing with flexible communal areas that are adaptable to the changing needs of residents.

Leveraging Reuse for Modern Day Projects

Not all historical reuse projects must date back so far or be ornate to be worthy of a new lease on serving the community. Moody Nolan designed a new home for the Jubilee Museum and Catholic Cultural Center, which opened in Columbus in late 2021 in a former car dealership that, in 1969, became the first Wendy’s restaurant. Our team converted the space—now part of the facility of the Catholic Foundation—to house the museum’s collection of religious artifacts in climate-controlled, accessible galleries that can be converted to accommodate a variety of types of exhibitions and programs. Where once people gathered over a meal, they can now gather to learn about the history of the city’s Catholic community and come together to chart its future.

These acts of preserving history while cultivating human connection celebrate the vibrancy of the communities we as architects serve. The environmental contribution of these efforts is also noteworthy, reducing operational carbon emissions by improving the energy efficiency of existing spaces and lessening embodied carbon emissions by reusing existing resources. This act of reducing emissions lessens the impacts of a changing climate, which is tied directly to community health indicators within the communities we serve.

These are just a few examples that display a commitment to creating flexible, impactful, and high-performing spaces for our clients—spaces that will be vibrant community centers not just now but long into the future.

“Buildings should serve their communities, and well-designed buildings should look not just at what is needed now, but should instead imagine a better future,” CEO Jonathan Moody says. Overall, the benefits to future-proofing are clear: reduced material costs, the preservation of historical, rare and culturally significant materials, as well as community pride are rewards to a practice that prepares for the future of people and the future of our planet.

Regardless of typology, style, or budget, we want to be part of designing that better, flexible, and climate-ready future for communities everywhere.

The views and conclusions from this author are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine or of The American Institute of Architects.