Second life for offices

Office buildings are left vacant, while new offices are being built and housing is desperately needed. What is holding back the transformation of offices into homes? Architect Hilde Remøy set out to find out.

While working as an architect, Hilde Remøy transformed offices and schools into restaurants and housing. As such, she soon realised that transformations were indeed becoming an increasingly important part of real estate developments. At the same time, she also wondered why such transformations didn’t occur more often. Why for example were new office buildings being built – sometimes even right next door to vacant ones? And why weren’t these redundant offices being sold, renovated or transformed to accommodate new functions? In the Netherlands, 13.5 percent of the 45 million square meters of office space is vacant, totalling 6.5 million square meters. This figure equals about ten percent of the current housing needs.

Remøy, who studied architecture in Trondheim, Norway, started her PhD research in 2005 at TU Delft’s faculty of Architecture’s department for real estate and housing, under the supervision of Professor Hans de Jonge. She focused her study on Amsterdam, where she invited eighteen real estate advisors to participate in interviews aimed at determining the appeal of office buildings. The outcome pointed to three main characteristics: location (including accessibility and nearby facilities), status (does the building’s exterior fit the corporate image) and flexibility (can the interior be easily adapted to the new tenants’ wishes).

In her second round of research, Remøy rated twohundred offices buildings in Amsterdam according to those three criteria, and then compared the ratings with the state of rental. “We saw that buildings which scored low on location status and nearby facilities had more vacancies. Also, buildings with hard to change interiors, and offices with worn and outdated facades, were more often left vacant over longer periods – three years or more. In fact, dull offices are left behind in favour of fancier, newer or better located real estate. New offices are not built to replace the older ones, but simply because there is a demand for them.”
Still, that doesn’t answer the question as to why transformations do not occur more frequently, or even why such transformations do not become a rule for obsolete office buildings. First, the owner needs to acknowledge that, as an office, his building has fallen out of favour and a subsequent reduction of its value must be faced.

Additionally, not all buildings are suitable for conversion into apartments. If for example the office building is located in an exclusively industrial area, like Rotterdam Brainpark or Southeast Amsterdam, it has too little to offer to make living there attractive. Then, there is the building itself, which must be transformable, meaning, for example, that balconies can be attached to façades, that interior walls can easily be constructed (not an easy task for all glass façade buildings) or that the building can be adapted to meet modern energy standards. Ideally, architects should design their offices and their surroundings in ways that accommodate a second life for their buildings. Remøy suggests one could even demand a minimum lifetime for office blocks as a way of contributing to more sustainable building practices. “In the planning stage of a new building”, she says, “one could demand that the construction be rendered suitable for a transformation into a second use.”

Closer to home, transforming obsolete offices into student housing has no great tradition. Remøy’s book lists only one example in Delft so far: the former tax office on the Westplantsoen, which was commissioned by Duwo. In Rotterdam, the monumental and colossal Puntegaal tax office has been successfully converted into housing for students and first-time owners. Remøy believes that Delft student housing organisations should put more effort in transforming buildings, rather than building from scratch. The IZA building, situated next to the Delft Zuid railway station, would be a suitable candidate for a thorough make-over. Ultimately, however, a building’s destiny is hard to predict. “When a building is loved, people are prepared to invest in it”, Remøy concludes. “But when it doesn’t appeal to them, it’s apparently easy to say that the structure no longer functions and should be demolished. Such things are impossible to regulate.”

Vanwege de crisis gaan meer jongeren na hun examen meteen studeren, voorspelt de Utrechtse collegevoorzitter Van Rooy. Zij voorziet een vloedgolf van twintig procent extra eerstejaars. Maar uit de vooraanmeldingen valt dat niet af te leiden. “De vooraanmeldingscijfers zijn onbetrouwbaar, de aanmeldingen staan dit jaar sneller in het systeem dan voorgaande jaren”, aldus de Informatie Beheer Groep. Sinds het nieuwe systeem Studielink wordt ingevoerd, vallen de cijfers slecht te vergelijken met voorgaande jaren. 

Editor Redactie

Do you have a question or comment about this article?

Comments are closed.