Office-to-Residential Adaptive Reuse Can Help Build Sustainable, Vibrant Communities

The evolution of office work is creating fresh opportunities to reimagine workspace. To attract today’s knowledge-economy workers and provide environments that help them perform at their best, businesses are adopting hybrid work strategies and new designs for creative, collaborative workplaces. Outmoded office buildings are ripe for reinvention as residential space.

Converting offices to residences may seem ironic in the era of work-from-home. But as Brad Wilkins, Principal and Studio Design Leader for the Austin office of global design firm HKS, noted, many older office spaces “are no longer at their highest and best use as office buildings anymore. They are now better suited for other types of uses – in particular, residential.”

HKS has an extensive history of repurposing, retrofitting and reimagining the built environment. The firm’s adaptive reuse work includes ProMedica’s corporate headquarters in Toledo, Ohio. That project gave new life to an historic, 1895 Daniel Burnham steam plant and a 1970s bank building. Also, ParkwayHealth Gleneagles Chengdu Hospital in China, a tertiary care facility created from a former shopping center.

HKS is leveraging its adaptive-reuse experience to explore ideas for transforming office space into residential space. Office-to-residential conversions expand the possibilities for how – and where – people live and work around the world.

Environmental and Economic Benefits

Sustainability is one of the chief benefits of adaptive reuse. “The first step when it comes to dealing with climate change is to reuse existing buildings,” said HKS Sustainable Design Leader Ramana Koti.

Repurposing existing buildings lessens demand for virgin material and can greatly decrease the amount of material discarded in landfills. Adaptive reuse can also significantly reduce embodied carbon – the CO2 emitted in the production of a building (this includes raw material extraction, the manufacture and transportation of building materials, and building construction).

Reducing embodied carbon is critically important as the global community approaches a key climate action deadline. The Paris Agreement international treaty on climate change calls for dramatic reductions in carbon emissions by 2030.

Architecture 2030, a New Mexico-based sustainable design think tank, offers a tool to help people compare the total carbon impacts of renovating an existing building versus constructing a new one. The calculator, called the CARE (Carbon Avoided: Retrofit Estimator) Tool, is free to use online.

Commercial-to-residential adaptive reuse projects also present financial investment opportunities. “From an economic perspective, you’re taking a building that probably has a pretty low basis and you’re redeploying it to be more valuable in the future,” said Doug Demers, Principal and Office Director of HKS Seattle.

Because these projects typically require less ground preparation, foundation work and structural construction than new building projects, adaptive reuse can hold a speed-to-market advantage over creating a building from the ground up.

Office-to-residential conversions can help meet market and community needs by matching the supply and demand for certain building types. As the market for older office space with fewer modern amenities drops, the need for housing is rising in cities around the world.

HKS’ design for the Benefield Building, a community center in Richmond, Virginia, includes 13,500 square feet of mixed-income co-housing, studio and 1- and 2-bedroom residential units. The pro-bono adaptive reuse project preserves a 1920s Spanish Art Deco structure as the front door to the center.

Revitalizing Communities, Retaining Character

Converting office space to residential space can rejuvenate a community. Office space “doesn’t really give you a community on its own, whereas residential does,” said Wilkins.  

When residential life is introduced into a business district, Wilkins said, restaurants that were open only at lunchtime can host dinner service. Children can play in plazas previously crossed only by people in business suits.

“There can be a whole different life to these places,” he said.

Adaptive reuse can energize a community while retaining the character of a building that is part of the local culture, said Jadenn Kelley, HKS Project Architect.

“The community already has ownership of the building. We’re just revitalizing it,” Kelley said.

And HKS Project Architect Taylor Odell added that with historic building conversion “not only are you maintaining the character of a neighborhood, but you’re getting a character in your (residential) unit that you’re not going to have” otherwise. “We can design great buildings, but we can’t design history.”  

HKS’ concept design for 1770 Crystal Drive, a 320-unit office-to-residential conversion in Crystal City, Virginia, transforms the existing height and set-back constraints of the site into a stepped vertical expansion that maximizes the unit count. The concept design showcases the adjacent park and unobstructed views of Washington, D.C. It includes wrap-around retail and building amenities to activate the public realm.

Challenges and Considerations

When it comes to repurposing a building as residential space, “the benefit of an office building is that it’s typically a clean floor plate, so structurally, it’s easier to divide up the floor plate into different units,” said Kelley.

Older office buildings tend to have smaller floor plates, which can more easily meet residential requirements for natural light and fresh air.

The deeper internal spaces of buildings with larger floor plates can serve as locations for amenities that are increasingly valuable in the residential sector, such as co-working spaces. “With these building conversions, the amenity package becomes incredibly important” to support flexible work experiences, said Kate Davis, HKS Partner and Global Practice Director, Commercial Interiors.

For the adaptive reuse of One Dallas Center, a modernist skyscraper originally designed by I.M. Pei & Partners in 1979, HKS incorporated 16 levels of residential units on the top floors of the 30-story building. The residential amenities include a lounge, fitness center and outdoor pool.

The firm renovated the building’s lower levels to serve commercial tenants, including HKS’ Dallas office. HKS redesigned the ground floor to function as a dual-purpose lobby for the residential and commercial spaces.

The typical column spacing for both office and residential buildings is 30 feet, which Odell said can simplify structural issues. Because centralized heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) systems are typical for office spaces, additional ductwork must be installed to support individual HVAC systems for residential units. Electrical systems generally require little in the way of adaptation, as long as the loads remain similar. Plumbing systems require upgrades to manage an increase on the supply side and the amount of waste produced. Life safety systems, such as sprinklers, fire alarms, stairways and egress points, need to meet residential code requirements.

On a building’s façade, incorporating balconies and more open glazing spans can create a less commercial, more residential look and feel.

Overcoming Challenges for a ‘Beautiful Future’

Zoning and financing can be concerns for office-to-residential conversions, especially in areas where projects of this type are considered novel. In their 2023 report, Behind the Façade: The Feasibility of Converting Commercial Real Estate to Multifamily, the Urban Land Institute and the National Multifamily Housing Council reported that “conversions can be financially feasible in a broad range of markets, original uses, building conditions and circumstances.” Tax incentives and special planning districts may help address funding challenges for these projects.

Demers said that standard solutions to common structural, planning, mechanical, electrical, plumbing and life safety issues related to office-to-residential conversions could be developed to lower the cost of these projects. This could be especially valuable for mixed-use developments of suburban office buildings in locations with parking and transit advantages, he added.

Converting office space to residential space can be a sustainable solution for enlivening neighborhoods and making the most of existing building stock.

“How do we keep reusing and reinventing?” Wilkins asked. “We have beautiful old buildings that may not be in their perfect state right now, for whatever reason, but can have a beautiful future.”