With demand for office space decreasing and footprints shrinking, building designers, owners and operators are left with the challenge of filling up unused spaces. This ushers in the opportunity for adaptive reuse strategies, where office buildings that may have outlived their initial purpose can obtain a new lease on life and new leases for property managers.

How the life sciences and multifamily sectors stand to benefit from adaptive reuse of commercial offices

Multifamily conversions help housing crunch

With many municipalities facing a housing crunch, an obvious solution is conversion to multifamily dwellings. This is more easily done in buildings with smaller, private offices since they will have existing independent mechanical, electrical and plumbing (MEP) installations. If a kitchen is already included, bedrooms and showers are the only major additions.

While larger office buildings may require more work on the MEP front, an open plan can allow for more creative living areas to be constructed within the spaces. Some old office building floors can even have part of their outside walls removed and refitted inside the floor slabs, which creates open space balconies – a much-sought after amenity for multifamily tenants since the pandemic hit.

Cities and states are getting on board via tax credits for converting non-residential buildings into housing. The first example of an underused office building converted to a multifamily property in Santa Ana, California under its new adaptive reuse ordinance, for example, features a 1960s office building converted by Studio One Eleven. The building is now a 58-unit affordable housing complex, where 10 units are townhomes that replaced a former surface parking lot. Per Fast Company, the project has a 55-year clause guaranteeing its units are set aside for residents who earn no more than 60% of the area’s median monthly income.

Life sciences facing a building boom

Despite the massive up-front cost, conversions from office to life sciences spaces are also drawing interest in the commercial real estate market. Pharmaceutical, biotech and medical research fields are needing space, since their workers are unable to jump on the work-from-home trend. Such renovations, however, present a daunting task. Per Bloomberg CityLab,

Lab space varies considerably based on the research being conducted, but one requirement that quickly eliminates office conversions is floor height. Labs typically have generous ceilings of 15 feet or more, to allow for substantial ductwork and space to run vents, additional water lines, and other HVAC systems needed for research. They also need generous amounts of space for specialized machines, such as water purifiers. The conversion checklist also includes solid foundations, to protect against vibration, and any site needs to be sure it doesn’t run afoul of numerous zoning and building code issues.

Sustainability plays leading role

Aging buildings, or those that have outlived their initial use, often do not need to be torn down. Adaptive reuse strategies can net both huge environmental benefits along with potential cost savings, and historical elements of buildings can stay intact while creating unique environments for tenants. As Gensler Research Institute states in its Impact by Design 2020 report summary,

Studies show that the additional operating efficiency, even of a high-performance building, can take up to 80 years to make up for the impact of having built it in the first place. Therefore, replacing an existing building should only occur if it cannot be adapted effectively or if the building that replaces it has sufficiently higher energy performance to quickly counterbalance the material loss.