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A new life: conversion of vacant
ofﬁce buildings into housing
Hilde T. Remøy and Theo J.M. van der Voordt
Delft University of Technology, Delft, The Netherlands
Purpose – The vacancy of ofﬁce buildings leads to ﬁnancial problems for the owners and social
problems for the community, e.g. vandalism, dereliction and deterioration. A solution may be found
through the conversion of vacant ofﬁce buildings into housing. Vacancy-threatened buildings are
often part of the mediocre part of the building stock. Does conversion make sense in this case? What
are the opportunities, threats and risks? What are the critical success factors? The purpose of this
paper is to discuss ﬁnancial, functional, structural, technical and aesthetic issues.
Design/methodology/approach – Through previous research at the Delft University of
Technology, tools are developed to decide the potential for the conversion of buildings. This paper
discusses the risks and chances, and brakes and triggers of transformation projects, based on case
studies. These case studies are performed through interviews with professionals involved in the
transformation process and through analyses of architectural drawings of the before and after
situations. For each project two interviews were held, with the architect and the developer or client.
The interviews focussed on the process of the transformation projects.
Findings – The conversion of nondescript and unarticulated buildings makes sense from the point of
view of sustainability, both ecologically and in an urban regeneration context. These projects will only
be interesting for developers of commercial real estate if they can be made economically feasible. Social
housing associations also have additional social goals. Through a longer investment perspective these
associations can wait for property increases through long-term externalities as result of upgrading of
the area. In buildings that are kept because of economical or social feasibility there are strong
connections between the target group, the location and the conversion costs.
Practical implications – The tools developed have proved to be useful for quick scans of the
potential for building conversion. This paper is a ﬁrst step in trying to depict a more detailed view of
the risks and chances of building conversions. Knowledge of the risks and chances of conversion is
required to make decisions concerning transformation projects.
Originality/value – The paper develops knowledge about transformation projects and decision
support tools for the conversion of buildings, based on empirical studies.
Keywords Ofﬁce buildings, Housing, The Netherlands
Paper type Research paper
Ofﬁce buildings in The Netherlands are experiencing high vacancy levels. In January
2006, the Dutch ofﬁce market held 5.6 million m
vacant ofﬁce space, or 14 percent of
the total of 40 million m
ofﬁce space. Around 3-5 percent of this is seen as necessary to
provide for movement and growth. A part of this vacancy (about 1.5 million m
structural (or long-term), which is deﬁned as vacancy of the same ﬂoor space for more
than three consecutive years (DTZ Zadelhoff, 2005). The same tendencies are found in
Germany, where Berlin, Du
¨sseldorf, Franfurt, Leipzig, and Munich all have vacancy
rates of 10-20 percent of the total stock (Eurohypo AG, 2005).
The current issue and full text archive of this journal is available at
Received August 2006
Accepted October 2006
Vol. 25 No. 3/4, 2007
qEmerald Group Publishing Limited
Vacancy is a problem on different levels. Economically, vacancy affects the owner
of a building directly. For society, vacancy presents problems of insecurity and social
uncertainty and may bring about criminality ranging from vandalism and grafﬁti to
break-ins, illegal occupancy and ﬁres. As such, vacancy also has indirect effects
through the negative image that it gives to the surrounding area and buildings. This
can lead to deterioration of the area, with rising vandalism, technical decay and
devaluation of its buildings. At the same time, the restrictive Dutch housing market
presents a potential demand for vacant ofﬁce buildings. In the Dutch situation, housing
is an attractive adaptation option, given the tight housing market. Housing
traditionally overlaps well with other aspects of the city core, supporting culture and
leisure. In 2004 the Dutch Minister of Housing sought to build at least 25,000 dwellings
within ﬁve years by converting empty ofﬁce space into housing.
Functional transformation is only one of several possible ways to solve the problems of
vacancy. The owner of a vacant building can also choose to have the vacant building
demolished and build something else, he can have it renovated and rented out again as
ofﬁces, he can sell it or he can simply do nothing – just hope for better times and wait
for someone to rent the building. Most well known examples of candidates for
conversion consider buildings with a proven architectural quality, while
vacancy-threatened buildings are often part of the mediocre part of the building stock.
This paper aims to answer the following questions:
.What makes building conversion a good option for dealing with high levels of
.Which buildings are suitable for conversion from ofﬁce buildings to housing?
.Does conversion of the mediocre elements of the building stock make sense?
In answering these questions, we used numbers from DTZ Zadelhoff (one of the largest
Dutch real estate brokers) and Neprom (Dutch Association of Project Developers) and
used data from earlier studies to develop methods and instruments for deciding the
transformation potential. We present two case studies of delivered conversion projects.
These cases describe the use of the instruments and give information from Dutch
practice on the feasibility of converting the mediocre buildings mass. These cases,
together with 12 others that are currently being studied, will be presented in the book
Transformatie in Nederland (Transformation in The Netherlands), which that will be
published in January 2007.
Vacancy of ofﬁce buildings has risen worldwide since the year 2000. Driven by the
growth of the new economy, high-risk investments in real estate property increased at
the end of last century. The burst of the internet bubble in 2001 was accompanied and
reinforced by economic decline and a worsening competitive position of The
Netherlands in general (Buck Consultants International, 2003). The effect on the real
estate market was devastating. As a result of the cyclic behaviour of the real estate
market, a huge number of buildings were at that moment being developed or built, and
even now, buildings which were initiated before 2001 are being ﬁnished. Vacancy
related to the conjunctures in the real estate market can probably be solved when the
situation in the market improves. But conjuncture-related vacancy can easily become
structural vacancy. Organisations that move to new ofﬁce buildings often leave behind
buildings which do not ﬁt present performance requirements. A lower structural
demand of ofﬁce space is expected, due to the decrease in the labour force through
ageing and the worsening competitive position of The Netherlands, which leads to
outsourcing of work to lower income countries. Part of the vacancy thus derives from
market and economic changes. But the location and the building also play important
Some ofﬁce locations are preferred to others, on both local and regional levels. Parts of
a city try to outdo each other, but especially for bigger ﬁrms, location is chosen on
regional givens – national or even international. There are several reasons why some
locations are less desirable than others, for instance poor accessibility by public
transport or car and poor parking provision. Another factor can be a negative image of
the area created by a poor spatial and visual quality. Agglomeration factors, such as
other similar ﬁrms moving out, lack of facilities and a concentration of ageing
premises, are also important. Finally, urban planning and zoning play an important
role. For instance, mono-functional areas are more prone to experiencing vacancy;
urban districts deteriorate due to negative market developments in a certain branch.
Municipality plans to change the use of an area can also inﬂuence prospects of future
development possibilities and thus trigger vacancy.
Reasons to leave a certain building include negative image or identity through a bad
spatial-visual quality, decay and shabbiness of the building or evidence of vandalism,
or the technical quality of (parts of) the building are in a poor condition or its
installations are out-of-date or malfunctioning (Healy and Baker, 1987). The functional
lifespan of a building is over if the building is not able to meet the requirements of new
ofﬁce space, as in a lack of ﬂexibility in rearranging space or inefﬁcient use of space or
poor accessibility. A large number of structural vacant ofﬁce buildings were built
between 1960 and 1980 (Neprom, 2003).
Conversion to decrease the ofﬁce supply
On the Dutch market, there are 5.6 million square meters of ofﬁce space for rent at this
moment. Most of this space is vacant. Owners of ofﬁce buildings let out their buildings
at low rates to try to keep them on the market. This leads to a general decrease in rents
and income. Vacant buildings with huge “for rent” signs are a bad advertisement for
the owner. Taking some of the non-conforming buildings off the market will lead to an
increase in rents, as supply and demand will correspond better. According to DTZ
Zadelhoff, a signiﬁcant part of the ofﬁce space – approximately one million square
meters – should be taken off the market. Many ofﬁce buildings are functionally or
technically outdated and not ﬂexible enough to be reﬁtted, or have a bad spatial-visual
quality. Also, the urban context of the buildings can be experienced as poor, from poor
accessibility, too little parking provision, the building being situated in a housing area
or being affected by other agglomeration factors.
Conversion to increase the housing supply
The Dutch housing market is stressed. The ﬁgures regarding the scarcity of dwellings
vary, but about 800,000 to one million dwellings are needed. Existing ofﬁce buildings
can of course be demolished and new housing can be built. However, the conversion of
existing building structure is sustainable: building materials are reused, and the
morphological structure of an urban area is retained. This contributes to an
understanding of the place and increases its historical value. Transformation also
saves construction time. For projects that have to be delivered in a short time-span, this
makes transformation especially interesting. And, for both options, there is no need to
conquer inbuilt land, which is already scarce in The Netherlands.
Which buildings are suitable for conversion?
The longer a building has been vacant, the more likely it is that the current owner will
be willing to sell the building or initiate a functional transformation. The subject of our
research is the structural vacant building stock, deﬁned as vacancy of the same square
meters for three consecutive years in a building that was delivered more than three
Locations in inner cities or on the edges of cities are interesting locations for housing
developments. Due to poor accessibility by car and poor parking provision, several
ofﬁce buildings in such locations are having vacancy problems. However, many of the
vacant ofﬁce buildings are situated in ofﬁce/industrial parks or along the highway.
Highway locations are poorly accessible by public transport, and air and sound
pollution are severe problems. Under the current circumstances these locations are not
suitable for housing. However, ofﬁce/industrial parks can be: by regenerating larger
parts of an ofﬁce location an interesting housing environment can be created. Different
locations correspond to different housing types and different target groups. If a
location is found to be suitable for housing, the next question is who – which target
group – would like to live there?
Ranging from reprogramming to demolishing everything but the structure, most
buildings have a certain potential for conversion. A speciﬁc kind of building is one
which has recognised architectural qualities or has monument status. The conversion
and reuse of these buildings almost always succeeds, albeit with economic loss. The
architectural quality or monument status will be kept without great changes in the
fac¸ade or other characteristics. A program can be sought to reinforce the value of the
building. The other extreme is the non-eloquent building stock. Apart from their lack of
architectural quality, these buildings are often of poor technical or functional quality.
They are outdated but, as revealed in our case studies, they can possibly be converted
into housing. There are few deﬁnite vetoes to the building structure itself, but the ﬂoor
height must reach the minimum ﬂoor height deﬁned by Dutch building laws. This
minimum is currently 2.60 m of free height. Other important factors are the economic
feasibility of conversion and urban zoning plans prescribing certain functions.
In order to be able to judge ofﬁce buildings on their potential for conversion into
dwellings the “transformation meter” (Table I) was developed by Geraedts and Van der
Voordt (2002). This instrument consists of criteria to measure opportunities and risk.
The criteria used consider internal building and location aspects. While only a few
internal building criteria are absolute, more of the location criteria can be the source to
a negative transformation advice. Depending on the target group, the conversion of the
building can be made economically feasible; the location, however, is not that easily
changed. The transformation meter has been developed to assist decision-making at
the beginning of a possible conversion trajectory.
In her thesis research at the University of Delft, Nicole de Vrij (2004) discussed a
number of methods that have been developed to decide which buildings are suitable for
conversion. The outcome of this research is a deﬁnition of four evaluation instruments,
based on the “transformation meter”. de Vrij (2004) validates her method through case
studies of 11 transformation projects. The ﬁrst step is a quick scan, using the criteria of
Geraedts and van der Voordt (2002) plus a few additional criteria such as the lack of an
enthusiastic developer, the owner not being willing to sell the ofﬁce building, or the city
council not being wiling to change the zoning plan. Further, a rough feasibility study is
executed in this ﬁrst phase. By applying this instrument, ofﬁce buildings that are not
suitable for conversion into dwellings are quickly identiﬁed. Second, potential target
groups are recognised based on the local market, the location and the building. Third,
the feasibility model gives an insight in the ﬁnancial/economic feasibility of the project.
Target groups are matched with rental prices and idealised ﬂoor plans. The idealised
ﬂoor plans can be used to divide the ofﬁce space into dwellings and an estimate can be
made of the number and type of realisable dwellings. Development calculations can be
made using costs and incomes. Fourth, a checklist makes a comprehensive risk
inventory possible. Most risks can be averted when signalled in advance. Speciﬁc
characteristics of the transformation project are listed, providing solutions for
frequently occurring problems, organised by location and building characteristics.
These are again subdivided into legal, economic, technical and functional/architectonic
The instruments developed at the University of Delft coincide with research done by
Barlow and Gann (1993), presented in a report by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation.
Their research focuses on the variables of buildings, owners, planning consent, ﬁnance
and economical feasibility. These variables were isolated and researched. Cases were
used to validate the research.
Brakes, triggers and risks
One of the obstacles for conversions is the specialisation in competence of the actors in
the real estate market. Developers, investors and owners of ofﬁce buildings have little
knowledge of other branches of the real estate market. Another problem is the price
asked for vacant ofﬁce buildings and the cost of conversion compared to the income
from the new function. Prices are kept high through using unrealistically high book
Aspect Criterion U
Urban situation Ofﬁce on remote industrial zone
Ofﬁce in the middle of an ofﬁce park
Ofﬁce in area deﬁned as priority area for ofﬁces
Land property Land rent
Vacancy Vacant more than one year
Vacancy of surrounding buildings
Character of urban situation Location on or near city edge, ring roads
No greenery in the neighbourhood
Social depreciation, vandalism
Pollution; smell, noise, view
Distance and quality of facilities Shop for daily errands .1km
Meeting place (cafe
´, snack bar, etc) .500 m
Bank/post ofﬁce .2km
Basic medical facilities (doctor, pharmacy) .5km
Sport facilities (ﬁtness, swimming pool, sports park)
Educational facilities (nursery, school, university)
Accessibility by public transport Distance to station .2km
Distance to bus, metro, tram stop .1km
Accessibility by car; parking Many obstacles, limitations, poor ﬂow
Distance to parking place .250 m
,1 parking place/100 m
Year of construction Building was built or renovated recently (three
Character of the building Unrecognisable, non-eloquent
Extensibility Not extensible horizontally
Not extensible vertically
Structure Structure in technically bad condition
Dense structural grid, ,3.6 m
Dimensions Net storey height ,2.6 m
Fac¸ade Fac¸ade openings not adaptable
Impossible to create windows which can be opened
Daylight entry ,10 percent of the living area
Entrance (building, dwelling) Impossible to create a socially secure entrance
Impossible to realise elevator in the building (if more
than four ﬂoors)
Distance from dwelling to stairs/elevator .50 m
Impossible to realise escape stairs according to
Installations No or insufﬁcient conduits realisable
Environment Noise level at the fac¸ade .50 dB
Sufﬁcient isolation between dwellings impossible
Sufﬁcient isolation of fac¸ade impossible
Presence of dangerous materials in construction
No or little sunlight
Source: Geraedts and van der Voordt (2003)
Criteria for low
(the greater the number of
checkmarks, the higher
the risk and the lower the
values. These values often do not correspond with the market value of the object in
question and make redevelopment impossible. Until 1996 the rent per square meter for
ofﬁce space was higher than the rent per square meter for housing space. The value of
ofﬁces is decreasing, while apartment prices continue to rice. This problem is thus
getting smaller, but is still an important issue due to the costs of the conversion.
Because of this, many investors and owners choose to keep their building on the ofﬁce
market, waiting for better times.
Municipal zoning plans and Dutch building laws are other brakes. Trying to
develop housing in an area scripted for ofﬁces can lead to juridical debacles lasting for
18 months. With such uncertainties, conversion is difﬁcult. The building laws are
different for ofﬁces and housing. In particular, escape during ﬁre, daylight submission
and the noise level of the surroundings demand changes in the building structure
which can lead to high costs or even make conversion physically impossible. Another
problem is raised by the location of the vacant premises. Half of the vacant buildings
are located in industrial areas and are considered unsuitable for conversion because of
the characteristics of these locations.
Knowledge about conversion and different ﬁelds of the real estate market is crucial to
trigger transformation projects. Keeping a structural vacant building in the portfolio
costs money and leads to ﬁnancial loss. Redeveloping the building can be a better
option. One advantage of a transformation project is the short time-span through
which a transformation project can be developed. Conversion is a sustainable way of
developing housing through re-use of buildings or parts of buildings. If a commercial
program can be added to housing, the project can more easily be made economically
feasible. Another trigger is the scarcity of space. Finding a central location for housing
development can be difﬁcult; ﬁnding a centrally located vacant ofﬁce building is easier.
Redeveloping central locations again can help to upgrade inner city areas and attract
Social housing corporations are a speciﬁc group of actors on the real estate market.
For a social housing corporation, not only is economic feasibility important, but social
feasibility is too. Another characteristic of these corporations is that they do not require
an immediate return on their investment. The demanded return on investment is also
lower than for a commercial developer. For these reasons, social housing corporations
are more likely to take on a transformation project.
Through our case studies, we have learned that the large risks in transformation
projects come from more than one source – one being the building itself, others being
the market or the municipality. Older buildings especially do not correspond with the
drawings or other available information, e.g. the construction turns out to be made of
bricks, not concrete, the distances between columns are not the same throughout the
whole building or the construction contains hidden asbestos. This implies hidden costs
that are revealed during construction. Another problem that was stated in two of our
cases is the housing market. At the moment that these developments started, the
economy was increasing and the housing market was booming. At the moment of
selling the apartments though, the market was saturated and some of the apartments
turned out to be difﬁcult to sell. A third problem is due to procedures which have to be
run at the municipality. Procedures for changing zoning plans or getting permission
not to work with standard building laws can take a long time. This means that the time
gained through conversion is lost through procedures.
These risks can be eliminated through better planning strategies. In feasibility
studies the chances of problems like weak construction ﬂoors, asbestos, and old
installations should be recognised. The choice of dwelling type and size should be
based on serious analyses. The feasibility of the project can be reached through
diversity, both in dwelling type and by adding another function to the building (e.g.
commercial space on the ground ﬂoor). Agreements should be made with
municipalities before starting a transformation project; this would lead to better
cooperation during the transformation process.
To explain the transformation process and main risk and success factors we will
present two case studies. The introduction to each case describes the actions taken at
the beginning of each project, responding to the quick scan and feasibility study as
developed by de Vrij (2004). The cases are selected because they were not
architecturally stunning buildings and were not monuments (which legally cannot be
destroyed). The success of these projects has to be explained through economic and
Student housing in Groningen
The ﬁrst case study is taken from Groningen in The Netherlands. This ofﬁce building
was built in 1980 for the Dutch telecom company KPN in the centre of the city. KPN
had moved out and the building was vacant when the housing foundation In marked it
as an interesting place to realise student housing. The reason for the interest of In was
the location of the building in the city centre, close to public services and city (night)life
and near other facilities that the foundation rented out as student housing. The
corporation was also the developer of the project. Through a feasibility study the ofﬁce
building was regarded as suitable for housing. The building was already up for sale,
but the price was originally too high. After some extra months of vacancy and
intensive negotiations by the housing association, the price was lowered to an
acceptable level. During the feasibility study, appointments were made with the
municipality in order to be sure in advance that changing the zoning plan would be no
Feasibility. Before buying the building, a feasibility study was done as to ensure
economic feasibility. The building structure is a simple concrete structure of columns
on a 5.4 m grid. In the centre of the building there is an elevator; the staircases are
situated at each end of the building. This granted that nothing had to be done to the
building as to make sure it would apply to the prescriptions for ﬁre escapes. Another
important factor was the state of the fac¸ade. The restrictions on noise on the fac¸ade are
stricter for housing than for ofﬁces (maximum 50 dB for housing compared to a
maximum of 60 dB for ofﬁces). The fac¸ade did not meet standards for housing, but the
municipality was willing to make an exception. Another common problem is that in
many ofﬁces, windows cannot be opened manually. In this building, though, most
windows could be opened, or at least one window per structural bay. This was an
important factor in keeping down the cost of reconstruction. A third factor that can
increase the cost of restructuring is internal installations. Heating, air and electric
installations could be re-used. Sub-meters were placed to measure the electricity used
by each unit. Radiators were re-used and were also given added meters.
Design. Little was done about the design of the building. The entrance was
refurbished, as to allow for 83 students to use it on a daily basis. In the wall, 83
post-boxes were placed, together with 83 doorbells. A program was set up in
agreement with the major student organisation in Groningen. This resulted in rooms of
20-25 square meters, each with its own kitchen, bathroom, address, mailbox and
doorbell. Dividing walls between the units were made sound- and ﬁreproof by using
layers of gypsum plates. In this way, as little as possible weight was added to the
construction. The converted building is an anonymous one, little was changed
physically, but the use of the building is radically transformed (see Figures 1-3).
Luxury apartments in Eindhoven
An ofﬁce building dating from 1958, originally built for the municipality health care
ofﬁce, later used as municipality ofﬁces, was recently abandoned. The building was
not a monument, but the municipality thought it should be reused. A competition was
held for real estate developers in cooperation with architects: the winning developer
could buy the premises and would agree to convert the building into housing. During
the competition, research was done to determine whether the building was suitable for
housing. A feasibility study was also done. The developer who won and got the right to
develop the project was a professional real estate developer, and aimed to develop and
The existing fac¸ade was
Existing ofﬁce building
Ofﬁce building converted
sell the apartments. As it happened, a commercial housing corporation later bought all
Feasibility. A feasibility study was done as part of the competition. In this case, there
was no pre-deﬁned proﬁle of the renters or buyers. The developer together with the
architect looked at the possibility of ﬁtting apartments into the existing structure.
Together with the costs of making the fac¸ade work technically, only top-end
apartments were calculated to be economically feasible. The neighbourhood where the
building is situated was also thought to be a suitable location for top-end housing. To
create extra income and add value to the urban setting, the base of the building was
given over to a commercial program (a pharmacy and a health centre).
Design. The existing building had various technical disadvantages: for example, the
fac¸ade was outdated and not energy efﬁcient. The ﬂoors were too thin to function well
as the division between two apartments. There were several possibilities to solve these
problems. Finally one concept was chosen that would solve all the technical problems;
each apartment was designed as a box that was placed in the existing structure like a
drawer in a chest of drawers. This also solved the isolation of the interior walls and
ﬂoors as the fac¸ade. However, during construction it also became clear that the
building was not built to modern standards. The measurements of the columns and the
distances between them varied from ﬂoor to ﬂoor. The “drawers” had to be
manufactured specially for each unit. This caused high extra costs. Another factor
contributing to the construction costs was the state of the existing construction.
Although the fac¸ade was radically altered, the characteristic structure of the
building and its identity were kept (Figure 4 and 5). The large-scale left-over spaces
that this building comprised were kept public and open. This is one of the obvious
qualities provided by the existing structure and which could not be provided for
through a new building built speciﬁcally for its use (Figures 6 and 7).
Reﬂection and conclusion
Most examples of converted buildings are examples of successful architecture;
buildings which become monuments. These buildings will be reused, whether they are
functionally efﬁcient or not. Converting nondescript and unarticulated buildings
makes sense from the point of view of sustainability, both ecologically and in an urban
regeneration context. These projects will only be interesting to developers if they are
In our case studies we have looked at buildings that were kept because of
economical and social feasibility. In these projects there are strong connections
between target group, location and the conversion costs. The former KPN building in
central Groningen is interesting for student housing because of its location. The project
was feasible because the price was reasonable, the fac¸ade did not have to be altered and
the ﬁre escapes were satisfactory. In the Eindhoven case, the fac¸ade had to be
completely renewed because of severe technical problems. The building was
completely stripped; the only parts to be reused were the concrete skeleton and the
staircases. The construction even had to be reinforced. The conversion could only be
made feasible if it was developed as high-end apartments. The location added force to
Typical ﬂoor plan before
conversion of the ofﬁce
building into housing
Typical ﬂoor plan with 16
units. The existing
elevator and staircases
Typical ﬂoor plan before
conversion of the ofﬁce
building into housing
Typical ﬂoor plan after
conversion into high-end
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Housing, TU Delft, Delft.
DTZ Zadelhoff (2005), Cijfers in perspectief, DTZ Zadelhoff, Utrecht.
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demand for new homes”, Department of Real Estate & Housing, TU Delft, Delft.
Hilde T. Remøy can be contacted at: email@example.com
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