The housing shortage has long been the catalyst for architectural speculation over adaptive resue scenarios or the valorisation of underused places in cities. At the same time, the health crisis and its work from home imperatives have brought into sharp focus the adaptive reuse potential of offices spaces into housing. The probability that some office buildings remain vacant post-pandemic opens up the possibility of bringing back housing to city centres, enabling the implementation of a 15-minute city vision. The following discusses the challenges and opportunities of transforming office spaces into housing, highlighting this limited phenomenon’s long-term feasibility and impact.
Implementing the 15-minute city in urban environments designed around principles of functional zoning implies the adaptive reuse and reconversion of some part of the existing building stock. Experts indicate that full occupancy in business districts will not return for the foreseeable future, the more reason to consider alternative uses for existing office spaces. For example, in Paris, 33% of available office space has been empty for more than 4 years. As companies are cutting back on long-term leases and are evaluating the financial benefits of scaling back on real estate, the scheme might become more economically attractive for developers. Moreover, as explained by David Bourla, Chief Economist for real estate consultancy Knight Frank, “investors are now seeking to rebalance their portfolios in favour of residential property, which is less correlated to economic crises and less exposed to the structural upheavals associated with the Covid-19 pandemic”, and are setting in motion conversion projects.
Adaptive reuse, in general, is the more sustainable approach to development due to the embodied energy and carbon footprint of existing buildings. However, converting office buildings into residential ones comes with an array of challenges. The building regulation framework and the morphology of office buildings are the most important obstacles to the widespread adaptive reuse of this typology. In addition, newer office buildings have larger floor plates, leaving a significant part of the building with little natural light and thus unsuitable for conversion. Building code constraints add another hurdle for office-to-housing adaptive reuse.