Adaptive Reuse: More Prevalent Than Ever


Chinburg Builders, Newmarket, NH, is a strong example of adaptive reuse on the Seacoast. Courtesy photo.

SOMMA is a wealth of knowledge for design, art and architecture, and one topic near and dear to Jennifer Ramsey’s heart is adaptive reuse. We picked her brain and were left wondering about the architecture of Portsmouth’s future, built on Portsmouth past. For more information about SOMMA, visit or contact them at

Q: Can you give us a quick definition of adaptive reuse?

A: Adaptive reuse is a term used to describe the conservation, renovation and reuse of structures, often for uses other than they were originally intended. Great examples usually entail old manufacturing and utilitarian structures repurposed for residential or community oriented uses. A popular example of this would be the Gasometer City in Vienna.

Q: What are examples of projects SOMMA has worked on that have involved adaptive reuse?

A: We’ve done a lot of work on the various New Hampshire Mill structures. Newmarket specifically was an exciting project to work on. I had very intimate knowledge of the complex having purchased and fit-up some raw mill space on the Lamprey Falls for my own residence back in 2002.

Now, more than 10 years later the entire network of structures is nearing completion and the results and feedback have been tremendous. It’s really inspired new life in that unique community.

Q: When did this term come into common usage?

A: I became most familiar with it in 1999 when I chose to focus on this concept for my thesis study.

However, the idea dates back easily to the 1960’s in the United States and likely earlier in other older countries.

Q: You have a photograph of the Chinburg Builders Inc.’s new office, how is this an example of adaptive reuse?

A: This is a part of the Newmarket Mill buildings previously mentioned. Chinburg Builders is a developer known for mill conversions and smart to relocate and incorporate their own offices as a showpiece of what fantastic space can be had in these older buildings.

Q: SOMMA will be moving into a new office at 30 Maplewood Ave., Portsmouth, in the not too distant future. Is that an example of adaptive reuse?

A: Exciting! We will be moving into a building originally built in the 1970’s. Up until recently it was used as the Health and Human Services offices for New Hampshire. We will be renovating the building, adding a penthouse and rear addition and constructing residential condos on the upper floors. The first floor will be revitalized into a combination of commercial uses. So although this was an office building and will continue to be so, in part, it is a version of a conversion project where new life can be breathed into an otherwise forgotten space.

Q: What do you think are some of the most well-done examples of adaptive reuse in the city of Portsmouth?

A: Portsmouth is littered with examples of converted uses. It’s an old, historic community that isn’t going to settle for staying still and quiet. I’d imagine that most buildings in the downtown have stories to tell.

Discover Portsmouth has instilled a great amount of color and inspiration into the old Portsmouth library.

Mombo restaurant at Strawberry Bank is a great space to dine. The old structure is very pronounced while the new features hold their own.

Some people may not realize, but the DeStefano Architects space on High Street used to be an old laundry mat. While working for D|A, we transformed that space. The beams in the lower level still show evidence of water damage, likely from a ‘mismanaged’ washing machine.

Remember Stroudwater Books? It’s now Philbrick’s Fresh Market.

Q: Wikipedia says that in Europe, the main forms of adaptive reuse have been around former palaces and unused residences of the different European royal families into publicly accessible galleries and museums. How would that correlate in the United States?

A: One could say we are a nation built on our industrious talents- manufacturing, fabrication, steam driven production-stemming from our desire to be independent. As industry has evolved, we have evolved those buildings to suit our present day needs. Hence, we find ourselves adapting our older Mill structures. Look at Ghirardelli Square in San Francisco.

Q: Is it true you wrote your thesis on adaptive reuse using a Seacoast landmark? Can you tell us about that?

A: My thesis focus was on adaptive reuse. I studied the history of the Wentworth by the Sea Hotel, the island and its surroundings and proposed a renovation and rehabilitation of the remaining building and the addition of a new structure. Remember, this was at a time when the building was an abandoned three towered shell, wrapped in chain link fence and overgrowth looking more like the entry sequence to a horror movie.

The timing of my independent study couldn’t have been better. It was simultaneous to when TMS Architects were just beginning to work on bringing the structure back to its original size and glory to eventually house Marriott’s new Wentworth by the Sea. I had copies of the existing conditions and was able to tour the existing building with their team of designers.

Titled: A Retrieval of Memory, my proposal would have included community oriented spaces to include learning as well as recreational aspects. The project design and proposal was well received by my advisors, although I don’t think the sizable models and massing studies survived my parents basement before being ‘put out to pasture’.

Thank goodness for numerous notebooks, sketches and the age of the floppy disk!


SOMMA Studios is a design firm based in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.

Our specialty is building design with a focus on residential; new homes, additions, renovations and urban living.,

603.766.3760 ext. 12.