transforming office blocks

The global pandemic is causing a major shift towards working from home, which is having a significant impact on the built environment  – and it begs the question; what is to become of vast office blocks, as the need for them and the demand for commercial office space declines?

As we all experience the profound impact of Covid-19 and the changes we have had to make, it has probably had some of the greatest impact on our working lives. Previously, flexible working was mostly pioneered by a few of us who had “earned our stripes” and the right to work remotely. Forced into this situation, what has undoubtedly been proven is that we can all be adaptable and productive, while working from home and that this seems here to stay. Already, a BBC study has discovered that at least 50 major UK employers have no plan to return all their staff to their offices on a full-time basis.

Of course, remote working isn’t suitable for everyone and there are circumstances when face-to-face communication is the most effective way to get things done, but this won’t be on the same scale as before. Many large companies are already dramatically saving costs on office space and associated utilities, by having most of their work force operate from home. Employees also benefit because they save on commuting costs and gain the ultimate gift of time.

As architects, we at rpa:group believe that this major shift towards working from home will have a significant impact on the built environment and begs the question; what is to become of vast office blocks, as the need for them and the demand for commercial office space declines.

We think that an obvious solution is to repurpose them into homes. According to the BBC’s Housing Briefing, it is estimated that we have built 1.2 million fewer homes than we should have, and the need for more homes is increasing. Calculations suggest that it will take at least 15 years at current building rates to close the gap and more concerningly, not enough of what is being built is affordable.

Office blocks lend themselves to this cause for several reasons, with a prime benefit being that so many are open plan. Partition walls can easily divide vast spaces into new living areas. Another key advantage is the existing health and safety standards that would have been in place when the buildings were used commercially, which surpass residential guidelines. Repurposing buildings also benefits the environment as there is less need for new materials and land to be utilised.

Structurally, large open office spaces tend to be solidly constructed and surround a central service core containing lifts, plumbing, ducts and risers, fire stairs, bathrooms and equipment. Wet areas located against the core can easily be connected to the building services and systems. Most modern office buildings already have the advantage of a 3-meter floor to ceiling height and large windows to allow plenty of natural light. There is also often scope to move various exterior walls, in order to create outside spaces.

Many office buildings accommodate ground floor shops and restaurants that rely on high levels of commuting office workers to survive and who are suffering as their trade dries up. Converting office spaces above into residential will provide a steady stream of local customers. Add to this the scope to include sports facilities, health centres, hair and beauty salons and childcare centres, among others, will result in the formation of micro-communities, breathing essential new life into the business districts of our towns and cities.

However, this all comes with a word of caution. The influx of vacant office spaces available is enticing developers to take advantage of the new Permitted development Rights (PDR). What this means is that offices can be converted into residential units via a “fast-track” process, without planning permission. As attractive as this new planning system seems to be, it comes with limitations and conditions.

Firstly, prior approval must be sought from the local authority to ensure that PDR can be allowed. Without the expertise of consultants, there are growing concerns about the increase of micro flats, lack of amenity space and little or no consideration for the needs of the local community and how this can impact negatively on them. Low-quality housing and inadequate housing standards are also on the rise and being reported with inconsistencies in the delivery of PDR developments.

We at the rpa:group strongly believe that what should never be compromised when transforming office blocks into homes, is the creation of environments that have been sensitively designed to provide a high quality of living. As architects and experts in the planning process, we can help realise projects and assist with all important prior approvals, helping to achieve a successful scheme that considers the wider community, and safeguards and maintains better housing standards for all.

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