Subscriber OnlyHousing & Planning

How Dublin’s unloved offices could become homes: ‘It’s easier to convert Irish office buildings’

Economic, environmental, and housing challenges increasingly make the case for converting Dublin’s 20th century offices to apartments, says Dublin architect John Dobbin

There is little love for Dublin’s stock of 20th century office buildings. These concrete blocks, largely built from the 1960s, were loathed by Dubliners almost since their construction, and are now increasingly also being rejected by the commercial market.

The office market favours the new, and with commercial vacancy rates reaching 15 per cent in the city, tenants have their pick of keenly priced lettings among the flashy new builds in the city’s docklands.

The default response when an office building has come to the end of its productive life has been to clear the slate and start again. But with the twin pressures of the housing crisis and the climate crisis, has the time come to consider that, while someone may not want to work in an old concrete carbuncle, maybe they might want to live there?

Bad offices could make great homes, says architect John Dobbin of Shay Cleary architects, who 18 months ago began working on a study of the viability of residential conversions of Dublin’s older office stock. “We could see this starting to happen in the US and Canada, and we wanted to figure out how it might work in Ireland, because our office buildings are very different to theirs and in many ways they’re actually easier to convert.”


The 1958 Office Premises Act, which laid down minimum standards for all office buildings employing more than five people, began the office boom in Dublin but also gave these buildings some of their “unique” characteristics, says Dobbin. “The Act said that there had to be natural ventilation – windows that opened – and daylight. This, in conjunction with wanting to build in the cheapest way possible, resulted in concrete framed buildings, that were relatively shallow, 13m to 14m wide. Whereas in the US they built deep plan air-conditioned buildings that are more difficult to convert due to the predominantly dark and deep floor plates.”

He says the ceiling heights in Dublin’s older office blocks are considered too low for modern workplaces but compare favourably with much of the city’s apartment stock built in recent decades. “You would have ceiling heights of 2.7m or 2.8m potentially, and that’s like a Manhattan loft, which is considerably higher than some of the places that are marketed as prime residential in the city.”

A downside of the Dublin office block, and one often cited to argue against their residential conversion, is that their central corridors and sometimes blank rear facades could result in single aspect apartments, but Dobbin says this is a challenge for architects to overcome. “We’ve come up with a solution which works with the existing fabric of those buildings to create duplex units. By chance, with the standard Dublin office building this is bang on the correct size for the national guidance on apartment sizes.”

Until recently it was more economically viable to keep these blocks as offices even if they were underutilised, but Dobbin says that viability gap has narrowed considerably.

“When we started this study 18 months ago the gap between the value of the building as office building and the value of it as residential was about 25 per cent. That gap is narrowing all the time as the values of office buildings fall. Conversion is still an expensive operation, but the most important factor in many ways is not the cost of materials or reconstruction, it’s time,” he says.

“It’s a hell of a lot quicker to do a conversion job on the existing structure than it is to demolish and rebuild the frame. You are literally talking years in the difference. That’s years of interest payments, years of finance costs. The way things are with the planning system you could go for planning and be stuck there for 18 to 24 months, or more in some cases.”

There is also the economic reality that companies don’t want these buildings any more because they don’t meet modern environmental, energy rating or size standards. “There’s really a two-tier market emerging here, and the Grade A space, recently built with sustainability embedded, is what occupiers want.”

However, planning policy is showing a greater reluctance to permit demolition, which is where the environmental reasoning for retaining and converting these buildings comes into its own.

“There’s a huge amount of carbon locked into the structures of those buildings. It almost goes without saying now that the most sustainable and carbon efficient building is always the one which already exists. To demolish these structures is now an unacceptable act of carbon profligacy in a climate emergency. In the building industry we have to count carbon like calories, and we need to continue to apply more and more of that science to the benefits of adapting buildings, extending them, keeping all of that carbon inherent in the building. It’s just absolutely the right thing to do.”

In addition to the climate imperative the strongest argument for converting these buildings to residential is their potential to bring life back into the city centre.

“Most of these 20th century blocks were built on the sites of demolished Georgian houses, full of people living there who were effectively shanghaied out of the place by new office construction. Imagine somewhere like Lower Mount Street filled with people living there, taking part in city life, therefore supporting retail, supporting services and reenergising those parts of the city.

“If the owners of office blocks can’t afford to renew them, and can’t demolish them, and it’s not worth selling them, what’s going to happen to them? We may not solve the housing crisis by converting office buildings, but it would improve the fabric of the city and they would make superb places to live.”

  • Sign up for push alerts and have the best news, analysis and comment delivered directly to your phone
  • Find The Irish Times on WhatsApp and stay up to date
  • Our In The News podcast is now published daily - Find the latest episode here