Why Office Conversion is Trickier Than You Think

Converting office buildings to housing is almost always possible, but, thanks in part to design changes in newer office buildings, it can often be cost-prohibitive.

2 minute read

March 15, 2023, 5:00 AM PDT

By Diana Ionescu @aworkoffiction

As many office buildings in urban cores remain vacant post-pandemic, the call to convert them into housing or other uses, a process known as adaptive reuse, has grown louder. But as Emily Badger and Larry Buchanan explain in The New York Times, “The idea, however, is less like a sweeping fix and more like a set of intricate puzzles — a different one for each building.”

To illustrate how conversions can work, and why they’re more effective in older buildings, the authors describe two New York City buildings, one pre-war and one built 40 years later. Older office buildings “make for simpler conversions because the same logic that shaped how they were designed as offices a century ago determines how apartments are planned today. Both share a rule of thumb that no interior space be more than 25 to 30 feet from a window that opens.”

Additionally, older buildings have operable windows and are by and large more affordable than newer office towers. “It’s an elegant circle of city life: The very qualities that have made these buildings outdated as offices now make them ideal candidates for apartments.” In more modern times, the invention of air conditioning and the fluorescent light bulb made it so that offices were no longer constrained to the same needs as before. Buildings could have deeper floor plates, creating more spaces that are far from any natural lighting. Meanwhile, modern office windows that don’t open would have to be replaced at great expense.

Ultimately, the authors write, “Developers and architects who’ve been doing this niche work for years say that few conversions are physically impossible if you’re creative enough.” But cities must create economic incentives to make the process cost-effective. “Such changes would not single-handedly solve any city’s housing woes, or fill all of its office vacancies. But both problems ultimately require more than one fix anyway.” Plans like New York Mayor Eric Adams' proposal to simplify the process for office conversions could yield tens of thousands of new housing units.

Saturday, March 11, 2023 in The New York Times

Large historic homes and white picket fences line a street.

The End of Single-Family Zoning in Arlington County, Virginia

Arlington County is the latest jurisdiction in the country to effectively end single-family zoning.

March 23, 2023 - The Washington Post

Amtrak Acela Express train passing through Harrison station in Newark, New Jersey

‘Train Daddy’ Andy Byford to Oversee Amtrak’s High-Speed Rail Efforts

Byford, who formerly ran NYC Transit and Transport for London, could bring renewed vigor to the agency’s plans to expand regional rail in the United States.

March 28, 2023 - StreetsBlog NYC

Buses in downtown Seattle on the dedicated 3rd Avenue bus lanes

Seattle Bus Lane Cameras Capture Over 100,000 Violations

An automated traffic enforcement pilot program caught drivers illegally using transit lanes more than 110,000 times in less than a year.

March 28, 2023 - Axios

View of Statue of Liberty with New York City skyline in background

Immigration Grows, Population Drops in Many U.S. Counties

International immigration to the country’s most populous areas tripled even as major metropolitan areas continued to lose population.

March 31 - The New York Times

Detroit Sports Arena

$616 Million in Development Incentives Approved for District Detroit

The “Transformational Brownfield” incentives approved by the Detroit City Council for the $1.5 billion District Detroit still require approval by the state.

March 31 - Detroit Free Press

A red sign reads, “Welcome to New Canaan.”

Affordable Housing Development Rejected for Lack of Third Staircase in Connecticut

The New Canaan Planning Commission rejected a development proposal, including 31 below-market-rate apartments, for lack of a third staircase, among other reasons, at a time when advocates are pushing to relax two-staircase requirements.

March 31 - Stamford Advocate

New Updates on PD&R Edge

HUD's Office of Policy Development and Research

HUD’s 2023 Innovative Housing Showcase

HUD's Office of Policy Development and Research

Urban Design for Planners 1: Software Tools

This six-course series explores essential urban design concepts using open source software and equips planners with the tools they need to participate fully in the urban design process.

Planning for Universal Design

Learn the tools for implementing Universal Design in planning regulations.