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The advantages and challenges of converting vacant offices to housing

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

Could two problems add up to a solution? One problem is vacant office space. A new Stanford study says since 2019, there's been a fivefold increase in the amount of time Americans spend working from home.

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Another problem is lack of housing. In a Politico survey of U.S. mayors, more than 70% said their cities need significantly more housing.

PFEIFFER: So what if people could live in some of those unused office spaces?

CHANG: It sounds like a simple solution, right? But it's not.

PFEIFFER: No, it really isn't. And, Ailsa, I find it nerdily fascinating to learn what does and doesn't work when it comes to trying to convert office space into living space. So we called Robert Fuller of the architecture firm Gensler because he's worked on these type of conversions.

CHANG: And one of the first things to know is that Fuller says buildings constructed before the 1950s are usually more conducive to being turned into housing than newer ones.

ROBERT FULLER: A lot of the kind of older prewar office buildings have already been converted and tend to work fairly well. What we're seeing now is a flood of buildings built in the '50s, '60s, '70s, '80s that were much deeper. You know, the advent of air conditioning, fluorescent lighting, you know, allowed these much larger floor plate buildings, and those tend to be a little bit more challenging.

PFEIFFER: One of the biggest problems with those newer office buildings is they're so large that the center of them often has no natural light, no windows. So what do you do about that dark, dead space in the middle?

FULLER: Yeah, it's one of the biggest challenges we face. There are some buildings, for example - I'm thinking of 180 Water Street here in New York City that - they actually cut a light well into the middle of the building and actually were able to have units facing into that light well. It actually turned out to be pretty successful, like an internal skylight almost.

CHANG: That sounds kind of cool.

PFEIFFER: Very cool.

CHANG: Fuller said another option is to embrace the darker middle of a big building by keeping housing units on the outside edges and using the center for group spaces or communal spaces on multiple floors.

FULLER: We did a project in Philadelphia called Franklin Tower, and we did exactly that. They tended to be things that didn't necessarily need direct access to windows - right? - gyms, spinning classes, shared kitchens if you had a big event that you couldn't do in your unit. And so it was kind of this interesting vertical spine of amenities that took advantage of what would otherwise be underutilized space.

PFEIFFER: I like that - vertical spine of amenities.

CHANG: (Laughter).

PFEIFFER: Fuller also told us that apartments could extend into that windowless middle and take advantage of that dark center for something they don't mind doing in the dark.

CHANG: Right, like for a home office, which is something more people want these days.

FULLER: You know, it kind of dovetails nicely with the work-from-home momentum that we've all seen being maintained post-COVID and is - you could do a great work-from-home space deeper into the unit, for example.

CHANG: Fuller also said converting old office space is usually less expensive than constructing a brand-new apartment or condo building from scratch.

PFEIFFER: But different regulations and incentives make all of this easier in some cities than others, and conversions are still pricy enough that the trend is rolling out relatively slowly.

FULLER: So I think there are plenty of people kind of waiting on the sidelines, waiting for those costs to drop to the right point where it makes sense financially to go in, purchase the buildings and do the conversions.

PFEIFFER: That was Robert Fuller, a principal at the architecture firm Gensler, sharing some of the work that goes into turning those old 9-to-5 spaces into new homes.

(SOUNDBITE OF PHOENIX SONG, "ROME") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Erika Ryan
Erika Ryan is a producer for All Things Considered. She joined NPR after spending 4 years at CNN, where she worked for various shows and CNN.com in Atlanta and Washington, D.C. Ryan began her career in journalism as a print reporter covering arts and culture. She's a graduate of the University of South Carolina, and currently lives in Washington, D.C., with her dog, Millie.
Ashley Brown is a senior editor for All Things Considered.