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Office conversions create much needed new homes, but are they nice places to live?

Over the past few weeks I’ve seen numerous articles popping up on the web relating to office block conversions.

In my hometown alone I’ve seen this residential construction trend with my own eyes as office blocks such as the old Xerox campus in Welwyn Garden City have been reformulated into high end apartments.

Of course, the stories in the news aren’t highlighting these more premium conversions; in fact they put buildings such as the Terminus House development in Harlow under the microscope, highlighting how families have been forced into tiny, almost unliveable spaces due to a failure to meeting minimum space standards.

This development is permitted!

Delving further into the issue I was shocked to find that the current Permitted Development rights do not dictate that planning permission is required to turn offices (B1) into residential properties (C3) (as of 2013).

This has meant that in Harlow alone, half of new homes created in this period were from office block conversions.

So is this rising trend something we should expect to see more of over the coming years? What is the Government doing to push this further?

And what are the pros and cons?

The Pros

In a changing world, the requirement for suitable housing is ever increasing and unfortunately changes and trends in the economy (namely the financial crisis of 2008-2009) have meant that many office building have been left redundant due to the decreasing demand for office space.

Therefore, a major pro for converting office space into housing is that old building stock can be repurposed, helping the UK provide more housing in a country where we have simply not been building enough housing.

At the premium end of the scale, this is ideal for those with a larger budget as the high-end office conversions provide potential residents with high spec apartments in great city locations.

This article on Absolutely London highlights that recent government house building figures have shown an 11% jump in the number of new homes due to the number of former industrial and office workplaces being converted.

This includes high profile conversions like Centre Point on Tottenham Court Road and the BBC Television Centre in White City.

The cons

In 2013 the Government pushed a new permitted development right which allowed office premises in England to be converted to residential use without the need for full planning permission.

Essentially this meant that while a developer needed to notify their local planning authority, they could proceed with the development regardless; although it could have still been rejected which would have required the developer to submit a full planning application.

The requirement for full planning applications was removed in order to encourage developers to bring forward more land and buildings for housing use – because typically (in the currently climate) residential space is of a greater value than office.

A space for living

The main problems that have since arisen due to the lack of regulation are that some standards fail to be met, such as the minimum space standards.

For example, this article on Inside Housing mentioned plans for Barnet Council’s old offices which showed flats as small as 16 square metres.

A study at the University College London and University of Sheffield also found that only 30% of flats in the study met national space standards, 77% were studio or one bed and some of the studio flats were only 15 square metres, significantly smaller than the minimum of 37 square metres for a one-bed home.

Other issues that were highlighted in the study include poor conversions that hadn’t taken the steps to provide adequate noise insulation.

From 2019 it is unclear what will happen regarding development rights in this area of housebuilding but what we could expect to see more relaxed permitted development rules when it comes to trends such as building upwards.

The considerations

Whatever the merits of converting office to residential, one overriding consideration that should be front of mind in any conversion, is energy efficiency. 

A refurbishment or major upgrade gives the opportunity to enhance the thermal insulation of a building, perhaps even introducing triple glazing, which significantly reduces the amount of energy needed to keep the interior comfortable.

Other enhancements such as planting, shading and solar screening can help stop buildings overheating, again reducing the amount of energy needed to keep them comfortable.

A good, modern heat pump system will help provide modern levels of comfort to occupants while using minimal energy.

Don’t forget the air

However, as these properties are made more and more air tight to increase efficiency, it’s worth reminding ourselves of the need for adequate ventilation, and this is where Mechanical Ventilation with Heat Recovery (MVHR) can make a real difference.

A modern MVHR system, such as Lossnay, will recover up to 80% of the energy in the outgoing stale waste air, and transfer it to the fresh, incoming air, so that less energy is needed to bring it to the room temperature, whilst occupants get a fresh and comfortable space.

Not fit for purpose

At Mitsubishi Electric, we are lucky enough to have George Clarke as our Renewable Heating Ambassador and he is passionate about good design.

George has written several articles on The Hub about the need for sustainability and good design with the damning conclusion that “The housing system is no longer fit for purpose”.

What he’s railing about are shoddy, rabbit-box, sized homes, where sale price is the only consideration.

He’s a passionate advocate of communities as well

Final thoughts

These typical office block homes and even some of the high end ones are standing out as examples of homes that fail to meet standards.

While they might be affordable (not always the case with the high end ones!) and while they may be sustainable (after all it is a reuse of a space), the size and quality of some of the spaces is simply appalling.

Furthermore, often in the articles scattered online about the high density of population in these conversions points to high crimes rates and a low grade community atmosphere that no one enjoys being part of.

Fortunately we don’t appear to be heading down the route of China’s “coffin homes” – which sees an estimated 200,000 people in Hong Kong who are forced to live into tiny subdivided units (sometimes only 3 feet by 6 feet) due to high market prices.

Ellina Webb is a Senior Marketing Executive at Mitsubishi Electric