Could Unused Office Space Help Solve the Lack of Housing While Benefiting Cities?

City centers are struggling to fill the gap left by commuters who now come into the office a few  days a week, if at all. These employees took advantage of downtown businesses, from restaurants to dry cleaners, and without them, these businesses are struggling or closing.  

Converting vacant office buildings into residential spaces is an urban redevelopment strategy that is gaining traction as it helps address the changing needs of cities and their inhabitants.

Portland’s downtown office vacancy rate has declined slightly since the end of 2022, according to new information released by CBRE, a commercial real estate services and investment company. The metro area’s overall office vacancy rate has remained essentially the same. 

In the first quarter of 2023, CBRE says downtown Portland’s vacancy rate was 26.8%, down from 27.4% in the final quarter of 2022. Vacancy rates in the downtown area are particularly high compared to areas outside the city, according to their report.

“The hardest hit office buildings, the bottom tier, are likely to face certain hurdles and may need to consider future alternative uses such as residential or even demolition,” CBRE wrote in its report. 

To save downtowns, many cities are trying to turn unused office space into housing. San Francisco officials are making efforts to adjust current building codes and get rid of extra fees for office-to-residential projects. In Washington, D.C. the mayor wants to put more money into a tax relief program for office conversions.

There are several advantages to repurposing office buildings for residential use. They include:

Urban Revitalization: Converting vacant office buildings into residential units can rejuvenate urban areas that may have experienced declining economic activity. It can bring new life to neglected or underutilized parts of a city. 

Sustainable Land Use: Transforming existing structures rather than constructing new ones helps optimize land use, reducing urban sprawl and preserving green spaces.

Environmental Advantages: Building construction produces 11% of global carbon emissions, according to the World Green Building Council. It can take up to 80 years for a new, energy-efficient building to offset its own carbon emissions, according to a study by the National Historic Preservation Fund’s Preservation Green Lab. Reworking an existing building eliminates much of this carbon production.

Preserving Architectural Heritage: Many office buildings possess unique architectural features and historical value. Transforming them into residential spaces allows for the preservation of these buildings, enhancing the city’s cultural identity. 

Infrastructure Already in Place: Office buildings typically have essential infrastructure, such as electrical systems, plumbing and elevators. These can be repurposed or upgraded for residential use, saving time and resources compared to starting from scratch.

Mixed-Use Communities: Creating residential spaces within or near business districts fosters mixed-use communities. Residents have easy access to amenities, services, and job opportunities while reducing their dependence on cars and promoting walkability. 

Housing Affordability: Repurposing office spaces can increase the housing supply and potentially offer more affordable housing options, depending on the location and market demand. 

However, several challenges should be considered when converting office buildings into residential spaces:

Zoning and Permits: The zoning regulations and building codes may need adjustments to accommodate residential usage. Obtaining the necessary permits can be a complex and time-consuming process. 

Infrastructure Upgrades: While some infrastructure might be usable, it may still require modifications and upgrades to meet residential standards.

Design and Layout: The layout of an office building may not be suitable for residential purposes, necessitating significant renovations to create functional living spaces.

Noise and Privacy: Office buildings may not be designed with soundproofing or privacy considerations in mind, which could be problematic when converting them into homes. 

Parking and Transportation: Adding residential units to an area may put pressure on parking and transportation systems, necessitating careful planning to avoid congestion.

Environmental Concerns: Older office buildings might contain hazardous materials, such as asbestos or lead-based paint, which require proper handing during the conversion process. 

Community Acceptance: Local communities may have mixed feelings about the conversion, considering potential impacts on their neighborhood’s character and identity.

To overcome these challenges, developers and city planners should conduct feasibility studies, engage with the community, and collaborate with relevant stakeholders to ensure successful and sustainable conversions. The benefits of revitalizing urban areas and meeting the demand for housing often outweigh the obstacles, making it a valuable urban redevelopment strategy. 

It also highlights the importance of designers of new buildings considering future use options, and creating for centuries of differing uses, not just decades.