Converting empty offices to residential may seem like a sensible idea in light of Australia’s housing and rental crises. NSW alone is expected to deliver just over half of the 60,000 homes the state requires annually across the next five years, according to recently released government briefing papers. Meanwhile, high vacancy rates continue to dog the office sector. Employees are returning to offices but slowly. In Victoria for instance the number of employees spending three to four days a week back in their offices rose five per cent in four months, inching up from 41 per cent in November 2022 to 46 per cent in last month. There was also a five per cent lift in the number of Victorian employees (38 per cent) working just one or two days a week at their office desks.

Limited impact

But while the concept of adaptive reuse of office buildings for residential towers would still work in some places, most of the country had insufficient underoccupied office stock for the practice to make a significant impact on the housing crisis according to Associate Professor Philip Oldfield from the University of NSW’s School of the Built Environment.

“While there are significant advantages to adaptive reuse, in practice office-to-residential conversions come with design and equity challenges,” Prof Oldfield said.  “Everyone’s looking for a silver bullet to solve the housing crisis. But these problems – climate change, the housing crisis – they are wicked problems. They are complex and seriously multifaceted.”

Even so, Prof Oldfield did not rule out pursuing the adaptive reuse of office blocks altogether. “We can convert offices to residential where the offices are shallow and where it makes sense [to do so] in terms of location, access to amenities [and] quality of space. Absolutely,” he said. “But as a strategy to create more accessible, equitable and resilient housing, its impact is going to be limited.”

Strategies however are being promised. Last Friday The Property Council of Australia released a statement saying NSW was “ready to help the new NSW government increase housing delivery” and “tackle the housing supply crisis head on”.

“There is no silver bullet to fix the housing crisis,” said Anita Hugo, the Property Council’s Acting NSW Executive Director. “But if we work together, we can begin to make positive changes for the future of our state.”

Racing for residences

With not only Australia but the entire world facing a housing shortage, the office-to-resi concept is being pursued with more gusto in some parts of the globe than others. Prof Oldfield said that according to the UN Habitat, an estimated 3 billion people will need to be housed by 2030 which boiled down to 96,000 new homes a day requiring one home to be completed per second. “This gives us a clear moral responsibility to build to improve people’s lives,” he said.

But with buildings calculated to be responsible for 37 per cent of energy-related greenhouse gas emissions, Prof Oldfield said that constructing new homes could not be viewed as the entire solution. This figure would need to be “radically reduced” to avoid global heating yet construction was inherently carbon intensive, he pointed out. “Well over a third of our future global carbon budget is likely to be used just for creating new buildings which is unsustainable,” he said.

Repurposing empty office blocks however was not straight forward either. For instance, office blocks that would be targeted for conversions would not be the modern towers of recent years built with sustainability and wellness principles in mind. They would instead be older buildings - secondary spaces with large-scale, battery-chicken-style cubicle colonies – that have been in least demand by business. And it is these “big and open and deep” floor plans that make them unconducive for apartment complex conversion, Prof Oldfield said.

Such spaces impact the “ability to meet the architectural and design needs of residential space”. “This frequently translates to long thin apartments with limited access to natural light and restricted access to ventilation both of which are important for comfort, health and wellbeing,” Prof Oldfield said.

Clever solutions

A bright spot in all this is that some developers have been able to afford to find ways around such challenges. Although repurposed strictly for offices, The Quay Quarter Tower in the heart of Sydney’s CBD was a prime example of the type of “deep retrofitting” involving architectural imagination and technical ingenuity that could provide “the most sustainable way to improve housing standards for people and the planet” Prof Oldfield said. The 1976-built QQT was redeveloped over the course of three years in such a remarkable way that 60 per cent of the original structure was retained while the building was divided into five separate multi-storey sections with an atrium and outdoor terrace at the base of each one. “The QQT building is an example of a radical ambitious retrofit the likes of which we haven’t seen before,” Prof Oldfield said.