Can an Office Block Become a Home?

Friday, April 10, 2015

Recent government relaxations on change of use applications has seen a spike in the number of office to residential conversions, especially in London where housing demand outstrips demand for commercial space.

It’s good news for home-seekers and property developers but local authorities are concerned about having to relinquish their planning control as well as the potential revenue loss from reducing the number of business sites. Change of use applications don’t go through the same planning approval process and as such are something of a wild card for local councils.

This news doesn’t mean that most of the next generation of homeowners will be living in office conversions. Even with the increase they make up a fraction of the development scene due. Change of use dwellings may not go through typical planning approval but they still need to meet building regulations.

Availability of natural light, access, amenities, energy efficiency and sustainability still need to maintain high standards. Many office buildings, with their deep structures, reliance on air conditioning and limited access/escape points would be just as expensive to convert to residential as it would be to simply build fresh.

At DGA, we’re not involved in the actual change of use application and redevelopment. If we’re dealing with an office conversion, it has already been converted (at a very basic level) by developer who has then sold on the properties. If you want more information on change of use and its viability, this detailed report from EC Harris is an excellent resource.

Instead, our interest is in how to design within a change of use development. Creating a unique, comfortable, modern home that reflects the personality of our clients inside a structure intended for work poses some unique challenges and – this may surprise you – some benefits too.

First is light. If you’ve been following our projects, you know by now that light is central to our design ethos. Opening up spaces and allowing unimpeded natural light through a structure is a simple and cost effective way to make homes feel larger and more welcoming.

Commercial buildings tend to rely on artificial lights. If a floor has been split into multiple dwellings, windows will be limited to one or two walls or if the entire floor has been converted to a single dwelling, the exterior walls may be spaced very far apart, making it difficult for light to fully fill the space.

Options are limited, so it’s paramount to avoid dividing the space as much as possible. Open plan design isn’t simply a modern design trend, limiting the number of walls and finding other ways to define sections of the home removes the obstacles that leave rooms feeling cramped and dark.

Next is achieving the feel of a home in what was once an workplace. What constitutes the ideal domestic atmosphere changes from client to client but we’ve yet to meet one who thinks an office aesthetic suits putting their feet up or raising a family.

Change of use developments tend to strip out everything but the bare structure. This provides a blank canvas on which there is tremendous freedom to design a modern, contemporary home. But these large, squared off spaces without any decorative detailing can easily feel sterile if all the walls are just plastered over and painted white.

The trick is to try and extract the character of underlying structure rather than cover it up. For example, the bones of a commercial development are chunky steel girders that, if revealed, create almost church-like exaggerated frames that will contrast beautifully with restored brickwork or polished concrete. You may lose period cornices and fireplaces but commercial structures still possess an underlying charm.

Taking advantage of their textural and material variety will make a change of use home feel more dynamic and personal, and can also create visual divides between areas without resorting to putting up walls.

Aside from light, there’s few limiting factors in terms of design when dealing with an ex-commercial building. They’re built far more solidly than your typical timber house, which makes them hard to cut through but also able to take a lot more load and punishment. They can host incredible transformations that would simply destroy a domestic property.

You can see this with our Vauxhall Penthouse design, which features mezzanine that protrudes through the roof and hangs over the main floor, sturdy and spacious enough to hold four bedrooms. The exposed steel beams and vaulted ceilings display the original structure to create a striking and vast space filled with an exciting variety of shapes, textures, materials and even a tree.

It’s a home that makes no secret of its industrial past and instead celebrates history to create a bold character very different from a residential development.

To read more about the Vauxhall Penthouse, click here for its portfolio page. If you have the opportunity to buy a change of use property, I hope I’ve shown you that – once you expel the ghosts of the workplace – an office can become a home that is beautiful and personal.

By John Dyer-Grimes