Deconstruction and new development of older spaces: From cubicle office to home? (c) Irene Schanda

German-speaking metropolises are full of office towers, administrative buildings and other commercial property complexes that have now fallen into disrepair. In their current condition, many of these properties are difficult to let. Can such outdated office space be converted into modern apartments? We take a look at the potentials and challenges.

into modern apartments? We take a look at the potentials and challenges.

Converting commercial properties into apartments - the idea is driven by the upheavals that keep affecting urban development. These include the move away from monostructured office districts towards mixed-use concepts as well as the change in retail and the demise of department stores. With these changes comes the question: What will happen to these spaces in the future? The topic of "New Work" also plays a role. Outdated workplaces cannot be transformed into modern, sophisticated office environments, or only at great expense. Why not build apartments into the existing building structure instead? After all, the housing shortage in all German-speaking metropolises is getting worse and worse.

"Twenty years ago, living in the city was not particularly popular", says Friedrich Gruber, CEO of 6B47 Real Estate Investors AG. "That has changed completely. One reason is the redevelopment of many city centres and the attractive infrastructure. People want to live with their finger on the pulse." Urban development is accordingly open to conversion concepts: Residential instead of commercial has long been an option. "We have converted half a dozen commercial properties in the past ten years", says Gruber. A separate asset class is now developing here. "But there are not yet many developers with the necessary experience."


Expertise required in both types of use

This concerns both sides in conversion projects, that is, both a commercial space and a residential space competence. First of all, fundamental questions have to be clarified that concern both areas: Is the site suitable for future residential use? Or is a hybrid concept more promising, i.e. continuing commercial and only partly new residential? On the one hand, the qualities of the location need to be assessed in a way that is appropriate for the use. "In the first step, project development has to do with creativity, not with architecture. With the recognition of possibilities", says Gruber. A philosophy has to develop, an idea. "That's how enthusiasm is generated, which you can then carry forward."

The experience also concerns the respective planning permission issues, because depending on the legal basis, the existing framework may suffice or preclude a change of use. So do existing planning laws have to be changed? "The discussion then often revolves around noise protection", says Gruber. "High-quality windows and a higher-quality facade are always a must." How are apartment layouts to be organised in the best possible way? Are noise-reducing areas possible? Or do you leave a commercial front facing the noise as a buffer, and the apartments start behind it? Noise issues are not only important for the interiors - but also, for example, for the planned balconies, open spaces or a possible shared roof terrace.


Only through combined experience from both sectors - commercial and residential - can the potential of large-scale conversion projects really be leveraged


Deconstruction back to the building skeleton

Initial conclusions can already be drawn from the years of construction: Office buildings from the 1950s or 1960s are often less suitable for conversion than, for example, commercial properties from the 1970s. The latter are often built in skeleton construction and bring flexibility advantages. Depending on the case and planning, they can be largely gutted: "Everything that is not concrete is dismantled. The classic shell remains standing", says Gruber. Columns, beams and floor slabs, but sometimes also the heating system or historically protected elements of the facade remain.


Coordination with the construction company is crucial

One of the most important success factors, however, is the coordination with the construction company: a planning process is required from the project development and the company carrying out the construction, which starts with the above-mentioned shell of the building. "For construction companies, such conversions are the exception, because in contrast to classic construction projects, building services, for example, have to be started immediately. The project developer has to control and monitor these processes centrally. 

Another advantage of conversion lies in the ecological and sustainability balance: it protects the environment not to completely demolish a building, but to reuse the supporting structure. At the same time, there is an important time advantage compared to demolition and new construction. 

In many cases, deconstruction back to the building skeleton or shell is an ecologically sensible approach, and time is also saved when compared to new construction. 


Extreme building depths

For the new interior design, the dimensions of the building are of course a central factor. Office buildings that are narrow enough for a double-row floor plan are usually well suited for conversion. With triple-row office structures or deep open-plan offices, it may become uneconomical. The same applies to department stores or former industrial properties with extreme dimensions. In these cases it may be necessary to change the geometry and, for example, to insert atriums over several storeys. Above all, the following question must be clarified: Does the building tolerate such an intervention from a structural, but also architectural perspective? "Often we cannot commercially pursue projects with too much depth, even though they would be architecturally valuable", says Gruber. 


Conclusion and outlook

Whether former corporate headquarters, high-rise or precast concrete slab building - there are now some impressive examples of successful conversions. Often, real estate "young timers" from the 1970s onwards are particularly suitable. However, there is of course no guarantee: sometimes office buildings from the 1990s are also unsuitable if their design means they cannot be sensibly adapted to modern residential needs. All in all, if both commercial and residential expertise are available, new residential units can be created in old structures in a short time that are on an absolute new-build level. Against the background of the continuing influx into the cities, conversion property will therefore also continue to establish itself as an asset class in its own right.