During the pandemic, lockdown and isolation protocols left many office towers vacant. Today office occupancy levels remain at unprecedented lows with hybrid working arrangements the norm across diverse industries.

There has been a global push to convert empty offices into apartments to address housing shortages and revitalise central business districts. However, while there are some significant advantages to adaptive reuse, in practice office-to-residential conversions come with design and equity challenges, says Associate Professor Philip Oldfield from UNSW’s School of Built Environment.

The attraction of office-to-residential conversions is easy to understand; in theory, they can provide much-needed global housing more sustainably, he says.

“The UN-Habitat estimates that 3 billion people will need [access to] adequate housing by 2030, with demand for 96,000 new homes every day. That's more than one [new home] per second,” says the expert in sustainable design. “This gives us a clear moral responsibility to build to improve people's lives.”

However, buildings are responsible for 37 per cent of energy-related greenhouse gas emissions. “We need to radically reduce this to avoid global heating. Additionally, construction is inherently carbon intensive. Well over a third of our future global carbon budget is likely be used just for creating new buildings, which is unsustainable,” he says.

“So we've got what I call an environmental contradiction: that we need to contribute to far fewer emissions, but we need to build far more [homes]. So there’s this shift towards thinking about when do we need to build, and how can we adaptively reuse existing assets. We need to be creative and converting these [underutilised] office blocks into apartments is one possible way.”

Read more: Net zero for Australia's built environment is possible by 2040

Proponents argue that increasing housing in urban centres through office-to-residential conversions also supports the 15-minute city model, where many of your daily needs are just a short walk or bike ride from home. The model promotes community-building and healthy living, boosts local economies and reduces transport emissions, helping ensure there is cleaner air and a more sustainable planet.

In practice, however, many office buildings do not readily translate to healthy and quality accommodation, and “we know that housing has an incredible impact on our health and wellbeing,” he says.

“It's all about balance. We're obviously trying to make money and we're trying to save carbon emissions. We're trying to reuse assets in a sustainable way, but we cannot do that to the detriment of people's health and wellbeing.”

facade of an empty office

Many office buildings do not easily translate to healthy and quality accommodation. Photo: Shutterstock.

Deploying architectural imagination and technical ingenuity improves ‘liveability’

International interest in adaptive reuse is growing. In America, a taskforce in New York is calling for legal and regulatory reforms to increase conversion opportunities, the City of Chicago is offering developer subsidies and California has passed legislation to facilitate adaptive reuse. In the UK, the government has eased zoning restrictions to encourage adaptive reuse and in Asia, the South Korean government is converting underoccupied hotels and office blocks into new rental accommodation.

In January 2023, the office vacancy rate across Australia was the highest it’s been since the mid-1990s (13.3 per cent), continuing to rise (0.4 per cent) since July. While demand for generic office space is plummeting, premium office space is still in high demand as employers seek to incentivise the return to the office, says A/Prof. Oldfield.

“We’re seeing a big shift away from generic open office floorspaces to offices with atria, to allow people to move between floors, with break-out spaces to work more flexibly, more collaboratively. They have to be attractive spaces, so people want to come in to work,” he says.

Office-to-apartment conversions will therefore likely involve secondary office spaces – the kind that house large-scale cubicle colonies; such buildings can make the provision of adequate natural lighting and ventilation more difficult, he says.

“Office buildings are fundamentally different in terms of space – they are typically big and open and deep – and this impacts their ability to meet the architectural and design needs of residential space,” he says. “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. Often this also means apartments with windowless bedrooms.”

The windowless bedroom is hotly contested topic for comfort, equity and health reasons; significantly, exposure to natural light connects us to the outside world and is associated with improved productivity, sleep and mood.

Read more: Bedrooms: more than just a sleep space

Of course, there is always the possibility that developers could introduce light wells and atria into these buildings to increase their residential suitability and appeal, he says. “Some of this is down to developer ambition. The QQT [Quay Quarter Tower] building is an example of a radical ambitious retrofit, the likes of which we haven’t seen before.”

Originally built in 1976, the QQT on Bridge Street, Sydney was redeveloped from 2018-2021, dramatically altering its design and form. “Using architectural imagination and technical ingenuity – “deep retrofitting” – provides the most sustainable way to improve our housing standards, for people and the planet,” he says. “This involves holistically considering the layout, fabric and systems to achieve the best possible comfort and energy efficiency.”

However, many of the proposed design plans for office conversions circulating on social media compromise on quality of life, he says. The appropriateness of office-to-residential conversions then raises questions about the kinds of housing we consider ‘liveable’ for present and future populations, he says.

“When we build, we build for the next 50 to 100 years so we’re building the housing for our grandchildren. We need to ask ourselves: would I want my grandchildren to live in this [home and] within a warming environment?” he says.

refurbishment of red brick building against blue sky

Office-to-residential conversions need to be ‘liveable’ for present and future populations. Photo: Shutterstock.

Poor quality building directly impacts lives

With global warming and changing climate conditions, energy provision is a significant consideration. “The poor environmental performance of Australian houses is a major contributor to energy poverty,” he says.

“Hundreds and thousands of people across Australia are living in energy poverty. Energy poverty doesn’t just mean you can’t pay bills… it means you're not putting the heating and cooling on because it's too expensive and that is affecting your health.”

Energy poverty disproportionately impacts people from low socio-economic backgrounds, and people living with disability and mental health issues and families with children, he says. While apartment blocks can be air-conditioned, buildings with highly glazed walls remain vulnerable in heatwave conditions.

“Imagine you live in a single-glazed apartment, and there’s a heatwave and a power outage. If you’re young and able-bodied you can go to the shopping centre or a swimming pool [to get some relief], but if you’re elderly, unwell or living with a disability – if you have COVID – you may not be able to leave. There’s fundamental morbidity and equity issues around building poor [quality] apartments,” he says.

Read more: Social housing temperatures in NSW exceed health and safety limits: study

Location is also important, he says. “Housing solutions need to consider access to amenities, such as transport connections, retail and hospitality offerings, and green space. A peri-urban office park, for example, is less suited to residential conversion because it lacks the necessary surrounding infrastructure.”

Finally, there are insufficient underoccupied office buildings with appropriate architectural layout and amenity connections to have significant impact on Australia’s housing and rental crisis; the crisis demands holistic reform rather than tinkering at the edges with these kinds of piecemeal solutions, he says.

“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,” he says.

“We can convert offices to residential where the offices are shallow. And where it makes sense in terms of location, access to amenities, quality of space. Absolutely. But as a strategy to create more accessible, equitable and resilient housing, its impact is going to be limited.”