Despite challenges, adaptive reuse can elevate our neighborhoods [OPINION]

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At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic shutdowns, when office buildings were abandoned and downtowns were eerily quiet, thought-leaders proposed a transformative solution: convert vacant office spaces into much-needed housing. This idea aimed to tackle the dual challenges of deserted city centers and the persistent housing crisis. By repurposing unused office buildings for residential use, society could create a vibrant and socially beneficial new norm, seamlessly transitioning to a world where remote work was the standard. 

Flash forward a few years and we can see that these opinions were overly sanguine in their characterizations of these conversions. Or, rather, they were incomplete in their discussion. All the chatter was on the big picture: converting office to housing, activating downtowns, solving the housing crisis. There was little actual discussion of how to make the conversions work. Exploring the process of conversion is warranted, not as a deterrent to adaptive reuse but to promote and enhance its application. 

Caption: Exterior Rendering of Pickle and Hide Post-Development 
Photo Credit: LRK & Field Operations

It perhaps goes without saying, but because office buildings are built for office work, they are built differently than residential buildings. In these conversions, there may be building code issues with fire separation, water and sewer capacity, heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC), and utility upgrades. Office floor plates can lend themselves to narrow, dark housing units, which are not aligned with residential sensibilities. Additionally, increasing building capacity by over 100% will trigger the need for seismic upgrades. Updating the utilities to meet the increase in demand can potentially be an extra challenge, especially if large stretches of a system need to be upsized. 

These challenges can be significant, and they may not be fully understood before a building is purchased and conversion begins, especially if brokers don’t consider reuse as an option when showing a property. From conversations with development groups actively engaged in local adaptive reuse projects, I’ve repeatedly heard how important it is to be exceptionally thorough during the due diligence process – going beyond what you think is necessary. However, this due diligence can be challenging and costly, especially if the building has existing tenants. Sellers may be reluctant to allow disruptions, such as cutting holes into office walls, which could inconvenience their current tenants. With more potential unknowns in conversions than in new builds, lenders may be more hesitant to commit funding or may require more contingency funding as part of a deal. And, more than likely, reuse will not yield the same returns as new builds, making reuse projects riskier all around. 

Risk can be mitigated, though, through due diligence and through knowing what to look for in a potential conversion. Many Class B and C office buildings are struggling with high vacancy rates and low rents, making them particularly enticing for conversion. If there is existing structured parking, this can be increasingly enticing. Finding a building with fewer existing tenants can lower costs by eliminating the need to relocate them. Converting from hotel/motel use can make things simpler as well, since each room already has its own plumbing and temperature controls. But anytime that there are wholesale changes, things become more complicated, as any change to structural systems requires a full structural review and upgrades. 

Caption: Exterior Rendering of Victory Heights Building Post-Development 
Photo Credit: Architecture Belgique, Inc. 

To help mitigate these challenges, I’ve heard from multiple groups that engaging a comprehensive team including an architect, engineer, contractor, and others right from the start, and maintaining their involvement throughout the project, significantly streamlines the conversion process. When all the key players understand the project’s vision and concerns early on, it greatly facilitates the execution of the plan.  

The concerns highlighted here all increase cost, time (cost again), and risk (cost yet again), while limiting potential returns on a project. Being creative with funding (Low-Income Housing Tax Credit, for example) can help ease some of these burdens, as can taking advantage of historic tax credits and building code flexibility that is available for historic buildings. Additionally, lender Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) statements may view affordable units favorable. 

And while the truth is that significant challenges exist to quick and seamless conversion from office to residential, a parallel truth holds as well: many older buildings are built better, more uniquely, and with materials that could never be economically justified today. From building idiosyncrasies to materials deemed too expensive in today’s world, adaptive reuse allows for a wider variety of architecture. As one person I spoke with put it: Many of these structures were built a long time ago, and building them today would be prohibitively expensive, so why not reuse them instead? 

Preserving Salt Lake City’s rich and varied architectural heritage adds to what makes the city such an engaging and appealing place to live and explore. It is also a more sustainable approach to building that can introduce increased housing density into neighborhoods.  

Understanding the constraints and challenges of building reuse, as well as wanting to highlight the opportunities and ensure diversity in our built environment, Salt Lake City’s Planning Division has drafted an Adaptive Reuse ordinance that seeks to incentivize reuse of existing buildings. Proposed incentives include: additional uses in eligible buildings, increased density over what base zoning allows, additional building height in various zoning districts with a streamlined design review process, and parking reductions. New construction on a site can also take advantage of these incentives when an existing eligible structure is preserved. 

Caption: Exterior Rendering of South Temple Tower Post-Development 
Photo Credit: Hines and Bowen Studios  

While the vision of rapid conversion from office to housing may have been overly rosy, the future is still bright. Conversion projects are happening now, and we hope that they will continue to increase. However, to make reuse more attractive, we must gain a deep understanding of the challenges involved and utilize the available tools to overcome those challenges effectively. 

Key Considerations for Planning and Executing Successful Conversions 

Building size, allowable height, number of stories, and floor area must be consistent with applicable technical codes, including the International Building Code for high-rises (buildings over 75’) and the International Residential Code (for buildings under 75’ and constructed primarily of combustible materials). 

Technical Considerations 

  • Must meet requirements for allowable travel distance to protected exits. 
  • May require upgrades to automatic fire suppression systems and required fire alarm systems. 
  • Will likely require upgrades to HVAC systems as individual residential units need individual controls and multiple small units as opposed to large systems for commercial construction. 
  • Will likely require upgrades to electrical systems as residential loads on electrical systems are higher for individual residential units than for commercial uses. 
  • Will likely require upgrades to plumbing systems as the demand for each individual unit increases the number of systems and pertinent plumbing piping and fixtures. 

Additional Considerations that May Apply Based on Technical Considerations 

Note: Change of occupancy class means a change in use (e.g., commercial to residential). Change in occupancy load means a change in the number of people occupying a building. 

  • Change of occupancy class may require addition of separation walls between each dwelling unit. Floors and ceilings may require upgrades to meet fire code. 
  • A change in occupancy load of 100% or more requires full seismic upgrades.  
  • May require enhanced smoke and fire alarm systems and automatic fire sprinklers throughout the building. 
  • A change of occupancy class may require changes to the heights and areas of the building and structure to comply with the current building code.   
  • A change of occupancy class may require that ingress and egress access comply with the current building code. 
  • Interior stairways may require fire rated enclosures depending on individual building layout. Additional fire rated stair enclosures may be required to comply with exit distance requirements. 
  • May require providing the number of accessible dwelling units to comply with current building code, including accessible routes to egress. 
  • Converted high-rises require the addition of a ground floor Fire Command Center. 
  • Requires that interior vertical shafts, such as elevator, service, and utility shafts, be enclosed, including separation at each floor. 
  • Requires meeting residential air leakage and ventilation requirements, which is a higher standard than required for commercial buildings. 
  • Requires compliance with energy conservation requirements for existing buildings. 

Note: This list is not comprehensive. There may be project-specific requirements that need to be identified by the design professional in a code study. 

Blake Thomas is the director of the Community and Neighborhoods division of Salt Lake City, which oversees planning, transportation, building services, housing stability, real estate services and more. Blake lives within Salt Lake City.

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