Converting vacant office buildings to housing is not an easy fix for our ailing downtowns. Not by a long shot.
Over the years experience has shown that they are never straightforward. There is no magic sauce. The unhappy truth is that retrofits are hard, expensive and sometimes make no sense at all. Here’s why …
Large floor plate office buildings generally have one central core, with elevators, bathrooms and utility runs in the middle of a very large open space. Natural light only reaches the middle because there are no walls. A multi-family residential building requires the reverse. Lots of bathrooms and kitchens stacked on top of each other, with utility runs spread throughout the building. And once you add demising walls for bedrooms and living spaces, there is precious little natural light for living in. In many instances it might be more efficient (and less expensive) to start from scratch. Historic office buildings are perhaps the exception – their smaller floor plates can more easily be converted into housing, if you can find one.
Of course this means that vacancies in downtowns will persist for some time. No-one knows yet what will happen to all of those office towers. But I’ll bet some real estate innovators are already testing new ideas. Some other building use will bubble up. Something that accepts the configuration of these buildings as an asset and doesn’t try to squeeze them into a use they were never meant for.