The conversion of vacant office buildings to residential accommodation — which is being mooted as part of a Government plan to tackle the housing shortfall — can work. It has been facilitated in several countries, most notably in the United Kingdom and United States. It is usually incentivised by reducing or removing the need for planning permission to change the building’s use from work to home, sometimes alongside ill-judged reductions in standards.
Although theoretically a no-brainer — who could say no to re-using existing buildings? — like many ideas in housing, it is not quite as simple as it might look on paper. Some of the challenges are technical, and some are commercial.
The biggest technical issue is the sheer size of many office buildings. There are vacant offices in Dublin with floorplates of 28,000sq ft ( about 2,600sq m), more than one-third the size of Wembley’s football pitch, or about 13 tennis courts. Getting light to the centre or back of these large floors is difficult. There are also multiple support columns spaced throughout the floor. Floor-to-ceiling heights, cladding (for openable windows), the number and location of stairs and lift shafts and fire safety, in particular, are also common issues. Designing around these to create liveable residential units is tricky.
Residential units are different from offices because, in the main, they require decent ventilation, natural light, and direct access to outside areas. I have examples of planning permissions in Dublin which show apartment bedrooms with no natural light, and others where the front door hits the double bed as it opens. We do not need more of those.
These technical issues make changing offices to residential challenging and therefore potentially expensive, but they are not insurmountable.
Converted office blocks in the UK delivered a lot of low-rent but substandard accommodation, with studio flats as