Converting office blocks will not work as ‘quick fix’ to housing crisis, researcher says

‘Timing is right for the repurposing of office blocks for residential use,’ says Simon Coveney – but how realistic is this?

Are office blocks the answer to Ireland’s housing crisis? The idea of repurposing vacant commercial premises for residential use is gaining traction within the Government, with Minister for Enterprise Simon Coveney agreeing to set up an interdepartmental group at the request of Minister for Housing Darragh O’Brien to explore potential projects.

Earlier this summer, the Central Bank warned that developers may suffer from a failure to fill new office spaces, given the oversupply of new builds. At present, there is a current office vacancy rate in the capital of 10.9 per cent. That figure is expected to grow, in part due to the pandemic-induced shift to remote and blended working.

Mr Coveney, a former minister for housing, said the “timing is right for the repurposing of office blocks for residential use” but how realistic is the proposal?

Orla Hegarty, an assistant professor at UCD’s School of Architecture, Planning and Environmental Policy, said: “I think it is feasible and is certainly something that we should be looking at seriously.”


She points out, however, that there are obstacles, including a cumbersome regulatory process which will need to be overcome in most instances before repurposing office spaces can even begin.

“One of the problems that we have here is that we don’t really convert existing buildings into residential,” she told The Irish Times.

“At the moment, people are looking at separate processes for planning and for building control and you can get planning for something but then fail the building control. We need to streamline these processes because the regulatory burden for building owners has too much administration and it could become a lot more straightforward.”

It is not merely a case of reducing red tape, however, with a delicate balance to be struck between tidying the regulatory processes while also ensuring that there are enough standards and rules in place to maintain the quality of construction.

“Mass deregulation and having a free-for-all could be disastrous. We already know what happens with low standard housing and all that goes with that and the knock-on problems which result down the line. We need very careful housing controls to make sure we’re building housing that’s built for the long-term and doesn’t end up being short-term low-quality housing,” Dr Hegarty said.

The repurposing of a modern office block which has been built to regulation would take approximately six to twelve months, she said, adding that the properties chosen must be done so with careful consideration.

“Whatever is done needs to very much be for the long-term and it needs to be done in places where people actually want to live. Otherwise, we’re just going to make buildings which will cost money in the long term as no one wants to buy or rent them.”

As for the work itself, Dr Hegarty described what the process would look like: “A lot of the new buildings in town would need the changing of their facades to have openable windows and balconies so they would need to be taking off the outside skin.”

Other issues, such as ensuring that each apartment received a sufficient amount of natural light, along with the widespread installation of amenities, would also need to be taken care of in any potential redevelopments.

“Really, what you want is to help build a community [where] people want to live and stay there for the long-term. There’s no point building housing that doesn’t have good ventilation and doesn’t have good daylighting and doesn’t have privacy. A quick fix in housing never works and just generates more problems in a very short space of time,” she adds.

Some inspiration can be taken from across the Irish Sea, with the UK government having recently passed laws which allow developers to convert commercial and retail buildings into housing without making a full planning application.

In their attempt to speed up the conversion process from office to residential use, however, there have been a number of poorly-designed schemes that have attracted criticism.

Examples include the Terminus House flats in Harlow, Essex, and Newbury House in east London. A recent BBC Panorama investigation highlighted the issue, showing how a lack of building guidelines had resulted in apartments being built in areas with no nearby amenities and families being crammed into tiny studio flats.

Writing in this newspaper last May, Lorcan Sirr, senior lecturer in housing at the TU Dublin, highlighted the mixed record of office conversions overseas. “Research from the US shows converting office to residential tends to result in more luxurious, high-rent accommodation and the UK experience shows it has delivered a lot of low-rent but substandard accommodation, with studio flats as small as 10sq m,” he said.

At home, however, there are some successful projects. An office block that had lied vacant for two decades in Dublin’s Park West Business Park was converted into 86 apartments last year by charity Tuath Housing with Harcourt developments, in conjunction with Dublin City Council. The development was delivered at a cost of €26 million, or roughly €309,000 per apartment, and similar projects are planned for Cork in the near future.

Dr Hegarty said: “There are large parts of Dublin city that could be reoccupied and, in the longer term, we need to think about designing our buildings in a manner which is more flexible, not designing hotels one way and apartments another and offices one way. There are plenty of commercial spaces that would be readily convertible but the role of government now should be to set the standards and streamline the regulatory structures – not do away with them altogether but tidy them up and make them more efficient.”