Can Empty Office Buildings Become Good Housing?

It seems like a brilliant idea.

Remedy the Bay Area’s perennial housing problem, a puzzle that has defied solutions for decades, while finding a new use for office buildings abandoned by the post-pandemic work-from-home trend.

Many cities, including Chicago, New York, Minneapolis, and Portland, are actively working towards a vision of carbon-friendly, repurposed office buildings, filled with happy residents who spend little time commuting, reinvigorating business districts into lively, thriving mixed-use neighborhoods. Cities are assessing buildings most suitable for conversion, identifying incentives, and adjusting regulations to help make this vision a reality.

The challenges are significant. According to the New York City Planning Office, only 1-3% of office buildings have been converted to housing over the last decade because doing so requires “alignment of several architectural, regulatory, practical, and financial factors.”

But the opportunities are too great to pass up. We at SERA recently completed a comprehensive study looking especially at Class B and C office buildings, which are by far the most challenged with high vacancy rates these days. We identified specific building features and the parameters that would help us score buildings for viability, regardless of their location. We believe that getting specific about the challenges and solutions can help us influence policy and identify the incentives that will make this vision a reality. Along the way, we generated a tool that developers and architects can use to identify good candidates. Here are just a few of the features our tool evaluates.

  • Zoning
  • Vacancy
  • Floor plate
  • Floor-to-floor height
  • Proximity to transit
  • Neighborhood character
  • Seismic upgrade
  • Historic status

Factors We Considered

Starting with three potential buildings in Oakland, we developed a list of factors to be considered when identifying building suitability. Ultimately, these factors were the foundation of a Candidate Scorecard that we envision developers can use to find worthy targets for investment. A deep dive into using this scorecard to evaluate building candidates will be the subject of a future post in this series.

We know there's a lot to explore in this topic and we'd love to hear your thoughts. Please get in touch if you have thoughts, questions, or ideas you'd like to discuss.

Office-to-Housing Case Study

After applying the candidate selection criteria to several buildings in Oakland, we settled upon one building to use as our deeper dive case study project. We recognize that studies like ours are most valuable when they are specific to particular buildings.

The building we selected for study is a 10-story, historic building in Oakland’s city center in an area of recent new-build residential construction, which suggests the market viability of additional housing in this neighborhood. At face value it is easy to envision the building as housing.

  • Masonry facade with large operable windows would not require facade replacement
  • Under 10,000 sf, U-shaped floor plate
  • Tall Floor-to-Floor Heights
  • Eligible for California Historical Building Code
  • Eligible for Federal and State Historic tax credits
  • Located in a walkable neighborhood with access to BART and AC Transit Lines

Potential Drawbacks include:

  • No seismic upgrade has been completed
  • The building includes no on-site parking
  • Elevators are near end of their service life

There are some features that make this building well-suited for conversion. We’ll take a closer look at a couple of them here.

Some of the factors that weigh into candidate selection

U-Shaped Floor Plate Provides Daylight

This New York Times article highlights the opportunities for conversion provided by Pre-War office buildings—with smaller, narrow floor plates and operable windows that provide daylight and ventilation. The article points out that several of the successful conversions in cities across the country are buildings that “share a rule of thumb that no interior space be more than 25 to 30 feet from a window that opens.”

To accomplish this exposure to light and ventilation, many of these buildings have unusual footprints, shaped like the letters H, O, C, I, L, or U, like our example. In addition to providing access to light, these buildings have operable windows, which are preferred for residential purposes but less suitable for office buildings.

They’re bad office buildings that can be great housing.

Walkable, Transit-Friendly Mixed-Use Neighborhood

Walkable, mixed-use neighborhoods are built with human needs in mind. And people like to live in places where they can meet the varied needs of their lives. This suggests that converted housing projects will thrive best when they are surrounded by restaurants, grocery stores, co-working spaces, libraries, and other public services. And the inverse is also true. Those businesses and services do better when people live around them.

The fact is that mixed-use is just better, and according to this Brookings article, increasing housing in these areas strengthens the demand for offices, increasing urban vibrancy. When these medium-density neighborhoods are served by public transit, we further decrease people’s dependence on cars and increase livability.

Our case study building is located in Oakland’s city center, in an area of recent new-build residential construction. The evolution of this neighborhood is clear and it’s easy to see how housing in the building would contribute to the area’s vitality.

Little details that have a big impact

In our case study we delved deeper into all of the MEP systems, requirements for seismic bracing and bringing the stairs and elevators up to current code. The hard cost for conversion could vary greatly depending on which of the above systems are included, which in part is dictated by the authorities having jurisdiction. It is thus imperative that owners engage with the right architect and consultant team, who can do some of the early due diligence, which could eventually save owners valuable dollars and avoid having to deal with it later in design development or construction.

What are other people saying?

We’re certainly not the first to explore the possibility of converted office buildings providing the housing solution we’ve all been looking for. In the spring of 2023, the San Francisco Bay Area Planning and Urban Research Association (SPUR) and the Urban Land Institute (ULI) released a joint study on the topic. Their study and findings focused on buildings in San Francisco’s Financial District along with the land use regulations and policies specific to San Francisco. Ultimately, they found that Class A office buildings are a long way from viability, which, of course, suggests the investigation and study of Class B and C office buildings. These buildings are the focus of our study.

Our project extends the work of this previous study, identifying the specific challenges that building owners face in response to the public call to convert office buildings to housing. We worked with a specific building as a case study, aiming to identify the common conditions that could be solved through coordinated efforts of elected officials, civic organizations, advocates, owners, and design professionals.

As we continue to build on this work and start seeing these conversions come to fruition, we're excited about the potential for revitalizing urban spaces, fostering community growth, and contributing to the vitality of business district neighborhoods. The little details have a big impact that makes it possible for these vacant buildings to transform into thriving hubs of residential life, making our cities even more vibrant and livable.