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So why aren’t we turning Empty Office Buildings into Housing?

-Image generated by Microsoft Bing AI

Excess Office Space: Too Little Housing

I’ve been asking this question for a while now since many cities are facing not one, but two problems. The first is lack of affordable housing. The second is that - especially since the pandemic when many professional people discovered the joys of working from home, there are now many vacant office buildings. While converting them to housing looks like a perfect solution to both, it isn’t as simple as it sounds.



Modern Post War Office Buildings have air conditioning and glass curtain walls, many central pillars and no opening windows. This makes them poor candidates for conversion because each apartment would need its own bathroom, kitchen, plumbing, access and windows which open to the fresh air.  Because most older buildings usually have opening windows, they lend themselves more readily to this and may have more suitable floor plates. Unfortunately, according to some estimates that means that only around 10 and 15% of buildings suitable for Adaptive Reuse as its called.


Where the shell of a building can be retained, there are considerable savings on material and time and it is also better for the environment – building and construction produce even more emissions than the aviation sector - but the need to incorporate modern facilities into each dwelling means that it is still very expensive. In some cases it involves cutting out large sections so that occupants can have private outdoor spaces, adequate plumbing and access to natural light. This makes for very expensive apartments and keeps them out of reach of those who need them most. The City of Chicago overcomes this barrier by providing subsidies or tax benefits to developers. Others  - and I believe some Sydney Councils have started doing this, is to make development approval conditional on providing a certain number of affordable apartments.

Unforeseen problems such older buildings containing asbestos may also be encountered, adding considerably to the cost and uncertainty for developers. Sometimes demolition and building from scratch is cheaper than trying to work with an existing building.


There may also be barriers such as Cultural Heritage listings which do not permit alteration or demolition or there may be other restrictions. New York for instance, has specific laws which do not allow Residential Development in areas designated for Office Space because it wanted to maintain a separate business district. It also earned more from office space than from residential buildings. Such laws may have had some merit in the past, but in today’s climate of vacant office space and great pressure for housing, they are no longer sound. Indeed, rezoning would help to add life, business activity and vibrancy to areas which are currently deserted after 5 pm. For cities it means less expenditure on infrastructure, less traffic and less pollution and could spell the end of the Urban Doom Loop whereby lack of property tax income means less and less money for services. It is also better for owners because it means some return on investment rather than nothing.


It is only in recent years that that apartment dwelling has become more acceptable in Australia – traditionally the land of the quarter acre block and sprawling suburbs. For some of the reasons why this is so, see the excellent Better Building video here.

The large highrise public housing estates built in Australia in the 1950 – 60s attracted so much criticism that the Victorian Government is in the process pulling the last of them down. 

However appalling the slums they replaced might have been, people missed the sense of community they had had and felt isolated and alone in impersonal surroundings over which they had no control. They also disliked the stigma involved in being housed in this manner. The lumping together of desperately poor people is thought to have contributed to the formation of gangs and to have attracted criminal elements, thereby increasing the stigma associated with living there. Tenants also complained about lack of privacy and lack of communal areas, lack of maintenance and so on, which also gave such dwellings a bad name. 

Fortunately in the intervening decades, attitudes have been changing both towards apartment dwelling and social housing. As far as apartment dwelling in general goes, the new urbanites prefer being closer to work, services and restaurants, to the isolation of the suburbs and long commutes. Many are also relieved that their weekends are no longer taken up with mowing lawns and maintaining gardens.

On the social housing front, there is more emphasis on open and shared spaces both private and public, having more personalised dwellings and having mixed use or services located in the same building. There are also efforts to be more inclusive and to encourage more diversity by having different kinds of people - the young, the elderly, families and singles, people with disabilities, people of diverse backgrounds and income levels, just as you would have in any normal community, which makes things much more interesting.


Between 2020 and 2021, New York was able to create 11,000 apartments out of redundant buildings, though it goes nowhere near meeting demand. Calgary in Canada has done a fine job of converting Office Space to Housing after experiencing a 32% decline in business leases. Spain, which has enshrined the right to housing in law, has also created affordable housing out of existing buildings. Below are links to some of these and other successful conversions though not all of them are about office buildings. For more on this topic - see the excellent  DW video on You Tube here or one about Boston here.

While converting Office Buildings may not solve all our housing crises,  Adaptive Reuse could revitalise cites and reduce the cost - financial, social and environmental, of homelessness and continued urban sprawl. 

Thanks to Microsoft Bing AI for help with this post and the illustration.