15 Sep Office-to-resi: A shot in the arm for the housing industry
The storm of the Great Financial Crisis left many parts of Britain burdened with empty and tired offices. Newspapers boomed headlines of “bombsite Britain” as many owners of empty properties demolished them to avoid business rates. The decline of the high street – seen recently with the demise of BHS – has been exacerbated by e-commerce; while a rise in self-employment and shared workspaces has also restricted companies’ office requirements.
The opportunity to re-use and re-invest in tired old buildings as a route to kickstart growth of our town centres is now beginning to be realised, although not without some controversy.
The extension of permitted development rights (PDR), unlike Starter Homes and Right to Buy, didn’t generate huge opposition during the Housing and Planning Bill’s passage through Parliament. Despite PDR being heavily contested in many local authorities, they pose a golden opportunity for towns and cities across the country.
PDR offers a great chance for civic leaders to attract new investment with homes delivered quickly and right in the heart of these towns. Many parts of the country long forgotten by housebuilders may well have potential opportunities for PDR schemes; creating thriving communities that spur further investment.
You can quickly and relatively easily build homes where there are none. One of our first build to rent schemes, in Bracknell, sits immediately above the town’s train station. The building was a tired 1990s Network Rail office block and now boasts 87 high-tech apartments with quality fittings, a residents’ lounge, a rooftop terrace and supported by an onsite concierge. There will now be a community of over 100 residents there in a space that had previously been left dormant.
Building these homes and attracting new people to the area creates a vibrant, 24-hour atmosphere, breathing new life into town centres. It helps local businesses at a time when many of them are struggling. Aiding the local economy can lead to an influx of investment into the town; whether that’s infrastructure, new offices, shops or nightlife, new businesses will always come to cater to the new crowd. Put simply, having more people helps make places.
PDR also allows for a sensible approach to space standards, which can restrict many developments. We’ve been able to fit 20 per cent more units into our schemes because of this; our units are slightly smaller than average but these are complemented by the provision of quality amenity space and a greater investment in technology like underfloor heating. At a time of such acute shortage of housing, this is an important contribution. We’ve been able to build more high quality homes in areas of the country that are crying out for them.
After the historic Paris agreement on climate change, thinking about how we maximise value out of our building stock – which is responsible for 40 per cent of all carbon emissions – is crucial. Reusing old buildings cuts the carbon footprint of each home dramatically compared with new-build developments.
The social, economic and environmental benefits of office-to-resi conversion mean it has to be given serious consideration if we genuinely want to solve the housing crisis. That’s why the first five schemes from our build to rent vehicle PLATFORM_ have been through such conversions. We’ll still be looking at new build opportunities, but with so much commercial space lying empty around the country, the chance to rejuvenate town centres, at a time when many are in dire need of this, is too great to pass up.
Dominic Martin is head of operations at Westrock, the investor and developer behind rental brand PLATFORM_