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Empty office blocks could become liveable homes, but it’s not simple

Ministerial support is being sought for a plan to convert offices into housing. But how practical is it?

The conversion of vacant office buildings to residential accommodation — which is being mooted as part of a Government plan to tackle the housing shortfall — can work. It has been facilitated in several countries, most notably in the United Kingdom and United States. It is usually incentivised by reducing or removing the need for planning permission to change the building’s use from work to home, sometimes alongside ill-judged reductions in standards.

Although theoretically a no-brainer — who could say no to re-using existing buildings? — like many ideas in housing, it is not quite as simple as it might look on paper. Some of the challenges are technical, and some are commercial.

The biggest technical issue is the sheer size of many office buildings. There are vacant offices in Dublin with floorplates of 28,000sq ft ( about 2,600sq m), more than one-third the size of Wembley’s football pitch, or about 13 tennis courts. Getting light to the centre or back of these large floors is difficult. There are also multiple support columns spaced throughout the floor. Floor-to-ceiling heights, cladding (for openable windows), the number and location of stairs and lift shafts and fire safety, in particular, are also common issues. Designing around these to create liveable residential units is tricky.

Residential units are different from offices because, in the main, they require decent ventilation, natural light, and direct access to outside areas. I have examples of planning permissions in Dublin which show apartment bedrooms with no natural light, and others where the front door hits the double bed as it opens. We do not need more of those.


These technical issues make changing offices to residential challenging and therefore potentially expensive, but they are not insurmountable.

Converted office blocks in the UK delivered a lot of low-rent but substandard accommodation, with studio flats as small as 10sq m. For context, that is the size of a supermarket car-parking space

Analysis by architect John Dobbin suggests we have several office blocks from the 1960s to the 1980s with potential for reuse as residential, many of which are in Dublin 1 and 2. This is potentially good news, but what might result? 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. For context, that is the size of a supermarket car-parking space.

Minister of Housing Darragh O’Brien wants to set up a working group to “develop exemptions” — potentially worrying language to anybody interested in maintaining housing quality. Learning from experience elsewhere, especially the UK whose ideas we tend to copy, exemptions in standards are something of which to be wary. That way lies the slippery slope of diminishing quality, and quality is vital in housing.

The market is a factor too. Given the inconvenience and expense of converting offices to residential, office owners have frequently chosen to ride out economic downturns, especially in higher-rent city centre locations. The vacancy rate in Dublin’s office market is about 12.5 per cent and is expected to peak at about 15 per cent. This is not chronic over-supply. Based on these numbers, even the low point in the market cycle may only mean 200,000sq m of vacancy over the natural vacancy rate. This is less than 3,000 residential units at 70sq m each.

As office building slows from next year, this relatively modest surplus will already start to be reabsorbed for office use from early 2024. This is why owners of prime offices may be more likely to sit on their properties rather than convert them to other uses. To date, offices have been a relatively predictable investment.

It may well, then, be the very low-grade vacant offices which owners consider for conversion to homes. . These are often in locations totally unsuited for residential housing: think industrial estates or office parks with no facilities or even access to reasonable public transport. This is the stock that has provided a lot of the UK’s low-rent, low-quality office-to-residential conversions and their attendant problems.

There are other related options. Dublin has a large stock of vacant upper floor “above the shop” accommodation that should not be ignored. Dublin City Council estimates there is potential for about 4,000 residential units above the shops in the city, more than any office conversions would provide. Cork city centre, as well as many regional towns, also has huge potential here.

As in most things, ultimately it will be money that convinces a building owner whether to convert it to residential or not

Despite several Oireachtas housing committees on the issue since Simon Coveney’s tenure in the housing hot seat, little progress has been made on streamlining the planning, fire and disability certification hurdles that have to be overcome for these above-the-shop conversions. Worse, most local authorities still offer a commercial rates rebate on vacant commercial floors: in Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown, this is 35 per cent, and a whopping 50 per cent in Cork city. Dublin City Council abolished the rates rebate last year. Any working group established should look at above-the-shop conversions also.

As in most things, ultimately it will be money that convinces a building owner whether to convert it to residential or not. The abolition of planning permission is only one component: conversion costs, subsidies, impact on the building’s yield and value, and technical and administrative obstacles are all significant considerations.

From a policy perspective, care has to be taken on two fronts. The first is that any changes to regulations or exemptions do not create a race to the bottom: mean, narrow rooms with poor ventilation, daylight and amenities. We are very good at publicising output and quantity, the crudest measure of policy success. But we’re too often silent on quality, which is how more progressive societies measure success in their initiatives, whether it be health, housing, transport or education.

The second point is that there are other, perhaps easier, sources of housing that should be considered, for example, our 166,000 vacant properties countrywide or above-the-shop living, and indeed that we should be building more flexible newer buildings.

Reusing existing buildings is a sensible idea, but they have to be the right buildings, reused with decent standards.

  • Dr Lorcan Sirr is senior lecturer in housing at the Technological University Dublin