Offices become dwellings

There is a lot of unoccupied office space, and in Rotterdam they want to attract more residents into the city. So what could be more logical than converting empty offices into homes?

Under the heading ‘Stick dynamite beneath it’, Vrij Nederland magazine recently argued for the large-scale demolition of old office buildings. In Amsterdam, alderman Van Poelgeest wants to impose fines if office space lies vacant for too long. Architect Herman de Kovel, the main speaker at the meeting ‘The city is finished: from office to dwelling’ organised by AIR, stated that, unlike in previous recessions when there was also a high level of unoccupied office buildings, we now realise that some of the offices will remain empty even when the recession is over. So 'we' have a problem.  

The city authorities in Rotterdam want large numbers of people to live in the city centre. So what could be more obvious than turning vacant offices into dwellings? But is that possible? According to De Kovel the most important question that first needs to be answered is: is the location good? Or is the premises hidden away on a run-down industrial estate or next to a busy road? The Dutch Association of Real-Estate Agents estimates that almost 20% of the offices are located in places that are suitable for conversion from offices to housing. De Kovel goes further: if the location is good, then there are another three obstacles to be overcome: financial, legal and constructional.
Financially, it is the tax burden in particular as well as the conservative balance sheet-value calculation that reduces the chances of success of such a project. As long as there’s just one tenant in what is otherwise an empty building, the whole building is entered on the balance sheet and therefore the value is too high for conversion into housing. The realisation that part of the stock should be devalued is only slowly dawning on property owners.
The law too can be a sticking point. In converting a building for another function, the requirements for new construction apply. These, however, are never fully feasible. There then has to be consultation with the local authority about exemptions from certain rules. This is an uncertain and lengthy process. Even more significant than the drastic and expensive consequences of the new-build requirements is the constant uncertainty that deters owners from opting for conversion.
In constructional terms, pipes and wiring are particularly problematic, according to De Kovel. An architect has to think of a clear structure and keep the routing of pipers manageable.

But the transformation of old office buildings also offers opportunities. In Amsterdam the Stadsgenoot housing association is experimenting with free plans in new-build projects called Solids. This idea can also be easily applied in the conversion of existing office buildings, since the free floor plans in many office buildings allow for the possibility of making bigger and more interesting dwellings.
For Rotterdam there’s another big advantage when it comes to redeveloping old offices. Retaining such buildings strengthens the historically layered character of the city. De Kovel is therefore surprised that in many completed conversion projects the façades have been completely altered, and usually not for the best. That is his experience. He calls for a more modest approach that builds on the architectural qualities already present. This is obvious in the case of preserved buildings, but it also produces better results with other office buildings. ‘Look at the Churchill towers in Rijswijk.’

In the panel discussion that followed De Kovel’s presentation, Jean Baptiste Benraad — former director of Stadswonen and responsible, he says, for 250,000 m2 of space awaiting conversion — jumped straight in : ‘Don’t design straight away!,’ he warned. ‘I know from experience that major façade alterations make conversion projects uneconomic very quickly.’ According to Benraad, architects should limit themselves to the design of floor plans.
It was to be expected that a room full of architects would start to grumble at such a statement. Doesn’t this erode the profession of the architect too much, the audience seemed to ask? That is not the case, according to architect Robert Winkel, the second member of the panel: ‘With our project for the Lloydkwartier area, which I worked on for nine years, I learned that converting buildings for another purpose is a totally different thing to new-build.’ Benraad added: ‘In conversion projects you are at the service of both the future occupant and the building. And not every designer can do that or wants to do that.’ The audience was not entirely convinced. In this conflict, architect Hans van de Heijden recognised the confusion between the attitude of a designer and of an architect. ‘A designer wants to unbalance things like an artist does, while an architect takes on the role of problem solver.’ But is a subservient attitude enough to carry a conversion project through to a good conclusion? Not always. Architects should adopt a more active attitude. 'Get involved in drawing up the brief and don’t wait obediently until you can design the floor plans,' said Winkel.

There turns out not to be a fixed formula for converting old offices into dwellings, at least not yet. This offers architects plenty of opportunities. Conversion projects involve less design work than is traditionally the case perhaps, but architects can deploy their creativity in going beyond design and searching for workable solutions in an active and unconventional manner. That seems to be the somewhat predictable message at the end of this architects’ evening. Now it’s time for the architects to put words into deeds.