Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, many companies are offering remote work options for their employees, or even moving to work entirely remotely — leaving empty office buildings alone. new fixture in many cities. In July 2023, Boston’s Planning and Development Agency announced a pilot program to offer incentives to building developers who convert office buildings to residential housing.
As engineers who study buildings, we want to know if these empty spaces can be transformed into residential buildings, and what obstacles developers will face.
While converting office buildings to multi-family residential involves many considerations—including zoning codes, real estate values and structural issues—some buildings may be good candidates for this. type of conversion. Here’s what it takes to transform these spaces.
Change the space
First, building owners do not need to make any major structural changes to convert an office building into a residential building. Most office buildings are designed so that tenants can easily build the space to suit their needs. This means they can put up walls, get power where they need it, and choose finishes like flooring, paint and lighting.
With a conversion to multi-family residential, the shell and structural elements of the building remain, while the building’s owners can add or move walls to create individual apartments. The costs for this interior makeover will depend on how fancy things like countertops and lighting are.
But remodelers also need to consider non-structural building components, such as windows. Windows determine the distribution of natural light in each residential unit. Narrower office buildings with more space around—and therefore more opportunity to look out the windows—are more easily converted to housing than deep, rectangular-shaped office buildings. No one wants to live in a home without sunlight.
Electricity, fire alarm and telecommunications
Residential and commercial buildings have different electricity needs. Residential buildings have kitchen appliances that require a lot of electricity, but office buildings use a lot of computers, projectors and copy machines — meaning the electrical load is likely to be the same. Offices and residential buildings have similar electricity needs for lighting.
The electrical load from heating and air conditioning will depend on the type of systems used. While the main electrical service in an office building may be an OK size for a residential building, remodelers should add a subpanel to each residential unit. US code requires that all residents have “ready access” to the circuit breakers or fuses that supply their unit.
Building owners also need to add more fire alarm devices, as residential buildings have more rooms. They may need to upgrade the internet, phone and cable systems, as well, to ensure that every single residential tenant has access to these services.
Although expensive, these power conversions are possible. The biggest hurdles are adding subpanels and metering to determine how much each unit is using.
Heating, ventilation and air conditioning
While commercial buildings often have centralized HVAC systems, residential buildings require separate HVAC systems and controls for each living unit. As such, mid-rise and high-rise apartment buildings often use a centralized HVAC system with variable air volume units in each zone. Variable air volume units work in conjunction with a central air handling unit that supplies constant air flow. Each variable air volume unit then adjusts the air flow for its specific zone. Each small apartment can be one zone, but some large apartments may require several zones.
Residential buildings typically have a smaller HVAC load than office buildings, which means that the existing HVAC system is larger than needed for residential reuse. Large air conditioning systems often have humidity problems—add to that the fact that residential tenants create more humidity from showering, laundry and cooking. The way to reduce humidity here is by adding exhaust fans. Variable air volume units also help control excess moisture. Building owners must pay for these additions, as well as ductwork repairs.
Plumbing and fire protection
In office buildings, most plumbing is centralized, usually in the core of the building. For example, bathrooms tend to be grouped and located in the same area on each floor. However, in residential buildings, pipes are distributed throughout. Each unit usually has its own bathroom and kitchen, and each needs potable water and sanitary sewer.
The biggest issues here are service sizes—or how big the pipes are that serve the building—and the interior plumbing system. Service sizes for water and sewer in an office building may not be large enough for residential uses. This will depend on local codes and the number of plumbing fixtures. It is likely that the pipe for the sewer utility connection will need to be larger for an apartment building than for an office building. Also, the interior plumbing system will require a remodel to serve each residential unit.
Changing the pipe for water should be possible. However, changing the sanitary sewer system can be more difficult, especially on upper floors. Gravity drives things down, and longer horizontal pipes require more vertical drop to keep things flowing in the right direction. This change required new pipe chases—vertical holes drilled into the pipes—to accommodate sanitary sewer and vent pipe needs. Adding these chases will likely require core drilling of the floors. If the owner wants to invest the money, it can be done—but it’s expensive.
The fire sprinkler system will probably need revisions once the new walls go up, but the size of the pipe that carries the water to the sprinkler system should be very close to the correct size.
New life for vacant buildings is possible but not easy
No one wants to see office buildings sitting vacant, because vacant buildings decrease real estate values in the neighborhood. Converting an office building to a multi-family residential occupancy is possible. However, it is not cheap.
But office buildings that need to be changed or upgraded anyway can be good candidates for this type of invention. If building systems – HVAC, plumbing, electrical – need to be replaced, the project will be more cost-effective. With demand for rental units outstripping the growth of new supply, and many cities like San Francisco and Boston offering incentives to renovate, there is potential here. For someone with a creative vision and a building in the right location, it can be a successful and innovative project.
Provided by The Conversation
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