Courtesy of CambridgeSeven
This rendering shows 110 Canal Street in Boston, a current office-to-hotel conversion project.

The Art of Office-to-Residential and Hospitality Conversions

July 3, 2024
Adaptive reuse that turns underutilized offices into multifamily or hospitality buildings lowers a project’s embodied carbon and keeps the fabric of our cities intact. Here’s how.

While many companies have brought employees back into offices on a hybrid or even full-time basis following the pandemic, we are continuing to see a major trend in office buildings being repurposed and converted into housing and hotels throughout major American cities. Many of these underutilized offices, often considered Class B or C, tend to be nineteenth century and early twentieth century buildings with outdated architectural layouts and design, which are no longer ideal for today’s companies or workers.

So, while companies have been steadily moving into more modern spaces, more and more of these historic office buildings have begun to sit vacant. There are actually many silver linings to the ample availability of historic office buildings in today’s marketplace, from sustainability and historic preservation to new real estate development opportunities, tax incentives, and more.

Why Choose Adaptive Reuse?

Instead of defaulting to tearing down historic buildings, there is more widespread enthusiasm among developers and architects to save these structures and repurpose them for new uses. From an architectural and design perspective, the ability to retain them through adaptive reuse helps to keep the fabric, character, history and craftsmanship of our cities intact. Mixing old and new designs also helps to tell their unique stories and illustrate their evolution.

There is also the very significant benefit of lowering a building’s embodied carbon and reducing its energy consumption when we opt to work with an existing structure. For example, when we looked at a recently completed office-to-hotel conversion project, we calculated that to have built the same structure from scratch, it would have used nearly 3 million kg of CO2 (or 3,000 metric tons) in concrete alone. This number alone equates to the CO2 emissions of 208 average Americans in one year.

Adaptive Reuse Challenges and Benefits

This is not to say that these projects don’t come without their own set of challenges and restrictions, though. Specifically, energy code upgrades do pose some obstacles for existing structures, though there are typically some concessions in the codes for older buildings. Some of the newest energy-related codes require that all buildings, new or old, comply with strict standards to reduce energy usage, but these vary based on location. Under such codes, residential and hotel buildings are required to have high-performance exterior envelopes, which is relatively simple to achieve with new construction, but takes some additional steps to achieve in older buildings. These include extensive engineering solutions and oftentimes window replacements in order to comply.

Well-placed windows are not only key to meeting new energy codes, but also to determining whether existing buildings would be best reused for residential or hospitality purposes. When evaluating former office buildings for potential conversions, there are several factors we need to consider when determining their viability and practicality. For example, there is a code requirement that all sleeping rooms must have appropriately spaced windows in order to admit light and air. Additionally, a building’s floor plate must be conducive to residential or hospitality uses, with the distance from the outside wall to the inside core generally no more than 30 feet.

Recent experience with our clients has focused on transforming former offices into hotels rather than residential buildings because hotels often have the ability to be more adaptable. It is common for hotels to offer a range of different guest room layouts and sizes while also needing more active, street-level public spaces for their lobbies, restaurants and bars. When it comes to residential projects, there may be more spatial challenges involved as residential units require more square footage and windows than the majority of single hotel rooms.

There are also benefits to repurposing existing building stock when it comes to savings and cost. One such benefit is a reduced timeline for permitting and neighborhood negotiations, which can be a lengthy process for a new construction project. When repurposing an existing building, this process can be accomplished much faster, even if it requires a change in zoning. This also means that the project can be completed earlier than if it were being built from scratch, which allows the business to open sooner and begin generating revenue.

It also generally costs a bit less money to employ an adaptive reuse strategy over building from the ground up, but it is worth noting that repurposing buildings is by no means a simple or inexpensive endeavor. This is especially true if structures are left in poor condition and need extra rehabilitation to improve their longevity.

The challenges of working within and around an existing building coupled with the safety and security requirements and the intricacies of restoration certainly add up in cost. However, the costs to our environment and the vitality of our cities is much higher if we don’t continue to reposition historic assets. Adaptive reuse keeps the integrity and heritage of our cities alive and enhances our urban environments in myriad ways. It is my prediction (and hope) that adaptive reuse will remain a strong trend for generations to come as we continue to find new ways to optimize the spaces in which we choose to live and work.

About the Author

Gary Johnson

Gary Johnson, AIA is President and CEO of CambridgeSeven, an award-winning architecture and design firm based in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Johnson’s urban design training is evident in his passion for tackling large, complex, multi-use projects. Never one to shy away from a knotty design challenge, he is happiest when he and his project team are testing “what if” ideas in pursuit of an elegant, efficient solution. A well-respected consensus builder, Johnson has a particular strength in helping clients communicate their goals to agencies, residents, donors and other stakeholders. In addition to high-rise residential and hospitality, Johnson’s work includes academic and civic projects.

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