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Office Buildings Are Being Changed to Living Spaces Across America

A vacant commercial office space in the South Lake Union neighborhood in Seattle, Washington, May 14, 2021.
A vacant commercial office space in the South Lake Union neighborhood in Seattle, Washington, May 14, 2021.
Office Buildings Are Being Changed to Living Spaces Across America
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In cities across America, property owners are turning office buildings into homes at an increasing rate. Online housing services company reports such conversions are at an all time high in the United States.

The company’s research considered thousands of U.S. properties that had been remodeled for new purposes. In the last two years, the report says, 32,000 homes were created that way. Forty-one percent of them were in former office buildings, RentCafe found.

Strachan Forgan is an architect with a national building design company, Solomon Cordwell Buenz. He says repurposing buildings saves the energy that went into their creation.

“As long as we can get them a new lease on life, then that can be a very sustainable thing to do,” Forgan said.

Slow recovery

The National Association of Realtors, NAR, recently said some property markets are seeing a strong recovery from COVID-19 effects. These include multifamily home, industrial and business space markets. But it reported hotel and office property markets are still suffering.

The real estate organization said continuing COVID-19 concerns have slowed the return of workers to their offices. The travel business has also not recovered well. In addition, office rents, the amount of money businesses pay to use space, have gone down.

An inflection point?

“We're at an inflection point” possibly, Forgan said. In business, that means a major change in direction. His company has converted a tall office building in San Francisco into apartments. The company is working on a similar project in Hawaii.

He said, “Employers have not made radical changes in the amount of space that they need.” But Forgan noted that if some workers do not want to return to their offices, the demand for office space will go down.

Sustainable and sometimes simpler

Converting old buildings is a sustainable way to add new housing. That is because needed road and public transportation systems are often already in the same place. Conversions can also simplify legal approval processes because the buildings are already officially registered in most cases.

“It's maybe faster or easier to get a conversion project approved,” Forgan said.

But there are also barriers. Those barriers are the common reason why office-to-apartment projects are not more common.

“Zoning and permitting are probably two of the biggest costs,” said Doug Ressler. He is with Yardi-Matrix, a company that provided some of the data for the RentCafe report.

Zoning describes local rules for the use of property and are different for every area of the country. “Most have been started from local ordinances…and built up,” said Ressler. Some areas, for example, are not zoned for multifamily housing, only single-family housing.

Also, requirements for living spaces differ from those for employment space, including levels of natural light.

Older buildings can present problems. They often require new mechanical, electrical and pipe systems. Historic office buildings, however, are often good candidates for conversion because of their design.

Conversions elsewhere

An NAR opinion study of its members in the business property market found that 84 percent of them use the same amount of office space as before the pandemic. But 11 percent reported a decrease in office space.

People have not made decisions yet, architect Forgan said. “I don't think the office market has really reacted to that yet.” But he noted that it is possible a lot of office space may become available in the future.

NAR reports that retail spaces, led by shopping centers, marketplaces with many nationwide stores, are continuing to recover. Big department stores which have been disappearing might also be getting a new lease on life. These spaces are being turned into places where companies can store and send products that are bought online.

Similar but smaller and more local shopping centers are known as strip malls. The NAR said they are also coming back to life. Part of that recovery might be linked to the willingness of owners to get new businesses to use their space.

Ressler said strip malls are being converted for new use by medical offices and health care providers. He said hospitals that are looking to reduce costs might create urgent care centers in strip malls where stores have closed.

I’m ­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­Dan Friedell. And I’m Caty Weaver.

Dora Mekouar reported this story for VOANEWS. Mario Ritter Jr. adapted it for VOA Learning English. Caty Weaver was the editor.


Words in This Story

new lease on life –noun phrase a chance to continue living or to become successful or popular again

sustainable –adj. able to last or continue for a long time

architect –n. a person who designs buildings​

retail –adj. related to selling things directly to people for their own personal use

inflection point –n. a point where a major change takes place

radical –adj. very new and different from what is traditional or ordinary

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