Rethinking urban centres - the opportunities and challenges of converting empty office space

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Since the pandemic and the acceleration of home working many offices in North America are now lying empty, or only being partially used. With the need for affordable housing, an obvious solution is to convert the empty offices to residential use. But how easy is it to do that, and what considerations do you need to factor in?

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In 2022, there was almost 998 million square feet of office space empty in the US and in need of tenants (NY Times, December 2022), almost 13% of the market. The US will end the decade with 330 million square feet, which qualifies as excess vacancy attributable to remote and hybrid strategies. The overall level of vacancy will therefore be 55% higher than was observed prior to the pandemic (Cushman and Wakefield). 

So, converting office buildings into residential units is a popular topic in the US now, driven by the need for affordable housing in urban areas and the desire for more sustainable development practices. It’s considered an obvious solution with many downtowns faced with historically high vacancy rates, as the demand for office space is reduced by flexible hours and remote working. 

Whilst some Class B office buildings are upgrading to offer enticing amenities, from boutique hotel style lounges and cozy nooks to rooftop terraces, green spaces, pop-up installations, fitness centers, spas, and convenient retail options, all aimed at creating the best possible working environment, others though may have to consider alternate uses. 

Consideration 1 — Zoning

One of the exciting opportunities that lie ahead is the challenge of navigating zoning restrictions in US cities. While these laws can be strict and govern the types of buildings used for residential purposes, they also offer a chance to showcase the importance of flexibility and adaptability in our communities. Though the process of obtaining a zoning variance or special use permit can be lengthy and expensive, it provides an opportunity to collaborate with city planners and government officials to ensure that the needs of all parties are met. 

It is important to keep in mind that there are various legal and financial considerations to consider when converting office buildings into residential units. For instance, the tax rates and profitability may be impacted, but these challenges can be overcome with creative solutions. By embracing these challenges with a positive and open-minded approach, we can transform our cities into vibrant, adaptable and thriving communities. 

The best environments are composed of a cleverly constructed cocktail of commercial, residential, hotels, leisure, retail, civic and cultural components, all locked into a fascinating matrix of public realm — the perfect recipe for a new urban destination. 

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Consideration 2 — Community

As we convert office buildings to residential units, we must consider the potential impact on the surrounding community. Concerns about density, traffic, property values, and parking can be addressed through collaborative efforts and careful planning. Public hearings provide an opportunity for community feedback, but it’s an opportunity to find useful solutions that benefit everyone [pictured, left, Benoy’s Royalmount scheme in Montréal, Canada].

Consideration 3 — Fit

Converting US office buildings to residential units presents a challenge due to the physical layout of existing buildings, particularly in deep-plan buildings, but it’s also an opportunity for innovative problem-solving. In addition to adding walls, windows, and plumbing, there are many creative ways to transform office buildings into inviting residential spaces. By thinking of the building as Swiss cheese,” we can carve out spaces for courtyards, balconies, terraces, and light wells that bring natural light and fresh air into the building. These design solutions not only enhance the liveability of the space but also add a unique architectural flair that makes the building stand out. With a creative and innovative approach, we can transform our office buildings into stunning and functional residential communities that meet the changing needs of our communities.

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Atriums/​light wells

These spaces can bring natural light and fresh air into the interior of the building, creating a more pleasant environment for residential. Atriums can also provide the opportunity for cross-ventilation which is highly desirable and can have long-term benefits from an energy usage standpoint. The IBC requires natural light and ventilation to all habitable rooms. The challenge here is how to make a dense urban block into a habitable bit of Swiss cheese, with balconies and terraces serving to effectively thin the building.


Exterior space is always a plus and adding balconies to an existing structure can be challenging, but has huge potential upsides. The main issues with adding balconies is the additional support required, the issue of cold bridging and the potential for making a deep floorplate even deeper with reduction of natural light into the resi units. But, the upsides are offering valuable exterior space to residents, enhancing the overall aesthetic of a building and potentially providing a modern touch to historic or industrial structures. Inset balconies could also be an option, but could be costly in terms of upgrading the existing building to mitigate against the issue of cold bridging. But the upside is the reduction in depth overall. 

Green roofs

Green roofs are another solution to deep floorplates that can bring nature into the building. Green roofs can provide a range of benefits, including improving air quality, reducing energy consumption, and reducing stormwater runoff. They also create attractive and peaceful space for residents to enjoy or play areas for kids.

Consideration 4 — Meeting the ground

Activating the ground level of a former office building converted to residential use is a crucial factor to consider. Introducing neighbourhood retail and food and beverage options is a natural part of creating a new community. In addition to these, incorporating community spaces, cultural and educational facilities, and event spaces can significantly enhance the conversion to residential use. Many of these spaces can be situated on the ground level, even in deeper plan areas.

Perhaps the biggest opportunity for clever design intervention is in developing strategies for ground floor residential units in dense urban locations. Designing ground floor residential units in urban environments on the ground level that can allow residents a sense of privacy while at the same time contributing to a vital and active urban realm. 


Consideration 5 — The embodied carbon challenge

Repurposing existing buildings presents a tremendous opportunity to create sustainable and vibrant communities. While constructing new energy-efficient buildings may be necessary in some cases, we strive to give unoccupied office buildings a second chance to shine whenever possible. Our goal is to revitalize our cities and communities, and we believe that finding new purposes for buildings is a challenge worth embracing. With creativity and innovation, we can transform these structures into beautiful and functional spaces that benefit both the environment and the people who live and work in them.

'The best environments are composed of a cleverly constructed cocktail of commercial, residential, hotels, leisure, retail, civic and cultural components — the perfect recipe for a new urban destination.'

Ideas into action — a selection of case studies

40 Bank Street London.
Benoy’s brief was to create a Plug&Play’ fit out scheme for an existing office building in London’s Canary Wharf. It needed to appeal to the widest possible range of prospective users, in particular the typical hybrid worker who might only be looking to spend a few days in the office each week. 

One of the more topical ideas is conversion to residential and mixed-use. The opportunity to create a more vibrant mix of uses within one existing building is a challenge that we’re excited about exploring. 

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Silvertown Quays development
On a forgotten industrial wasteland in London’s East End, there are plans to transform it into a vibrant, thriving economic hub. Silvertown’s vision is not only to capture the potential of commercial development, but also to be a place to live with pursuit and vision. The idea of a flexible building which can accommodate maker space, brand showrooms and potentially residential is part of a new way of looking at buildings as more adaptable and sustainable. 

Of course, a few challenges and opportunities may need to be overcome to make this change possible in the US market. 

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Central Quay, Cardiff, Wales

Set to be the largest regeneration scheme in Wales, Central Quay in Cardiff is Benoy’s latest mixed-use masterplan. Covering 2.5 million square feet, Central Quay, it will be a public hub on the site of Brains Brewery in the heart of the city, which will fuse co-working, education and food and drink space. 

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Tri City Central, Coquitlam, Vancouver, Canada 

This nine-tower development will provide engaging spaces for the local residents and visitors through a mix of essential retail, curated shops and services, and public amenities to help support this growing community, just a short walk away from the Millennial Skytrain station. 

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What can Benoy do to help you reactivate and reposition your property?

We improve and increase the value of office-use properties by transitioning them to residential-use. We do this by supporting community-focused amenities and elevating the property’s value (from a B level to an A level asset) or engage in a more comprehensive reimaging by providing a diverse tenant mix including hospitality, food & beverage, leisure, convenience and some specialty office space with residential at its core.

Buildings are not just stand-alone structures; with a holistic strategy and new solutions they can become integral part of future communities and neighbourhoods. Benoy’s integrated commercially minded solutions and people-centric approach can assess and evaluate opportunities to maximize a properties potential. 

Get in touch

Contact the team — Paola, Jacqueline, Steve or Barry, via the links at the top of the article. Read more about the office as a multifunctional space.

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