A new strategy and toolkit is being developed to make good use of under-occupied buildings through low-level intervention. It is an alternative option to mothballing and demolition. 

Living and working with COVID 

Prior to COVID, office workers did the nine to five, bookended with a commute. Retail and health services, arts and cultural event were available beyond working hours, encouraging workers to stick around before going home. 

These commercial land uses are concentrated in our CBDs. Rob Harris’s (2021) book; London’s Global Office Economy: From Clerical Factory to Digital Hub, traces the history of the office from small buildings to skyscrapers, from individual office layouts to large open plan “factories”. 

Handwritten documents were superseded by typed documents, and in the 1980s, computers and digital technology arrived. Since then, the office has morphed again as different workplace cultures demanded different configurations (Wilkinson & Nanayakkara, 2020). The take home is that the only constant is change. 

And then came a huge global change: COVID. In Australia state government lockdowns required people to work from home. 

Some preferred home working – with a better work-life balance and no commute. Many office workers preferred only two to three days a week in the office. Where this occurs, there are fewer office workers in CBDs than pre COVID, and we have seen the current impacts on our retail and service sectors. 

Sydney and Melbourne markets

Knight Frank’s 2021 overview of the Asia-Pacific market concluded COVID lockdowns have exposed weaknesses of income-producing properties, with a two-tiered market forming. While the prime assets hold value, non-prime asset values are deteriorating with partial and/or full vacancy increasing. The result being moves to convert buildings with five drivers identified: 

  1. Uncertainties around occupier demand over the medium- to long-term
  2. E-commerce disruption rendering retail assets obsolete 
  3. Prolonged weak international tourism impacting hospitality assets 
  4. The growing importance of Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) 
  5. Emergence of sectors with structural tailwinds. 

So what is the solution? Repurposing or adaptive reuse? 

There are advantages to repurposing over redevelopment. While there are opportunities to repurpose assets for alternative or mixed-uses, no “one-size-fits-all” as location, demand and local infrastructure inform what is viable. 

Repurposed uses range from healthcare, co-working/flex space to residential (including build-to-rent) and logistics (Knight Frank, 2021). While the viability of repurposing buildings varies, this is an opportunity for owners, investors, and developers to meet evolving market demand. 

The 2021 London market revealed increasing tenants, deferred office moves, and lease extensions, looking for short-term, flexible accommodation until economic conditions become more certain. 

This shift saw the flexible and serviced office market expand rapidly, underpinning the growing demand for a broader office market. 

Jansons (2021) observed a flight to quality with healthy workplaces with eco-friendly specifications being a priority. The pandemic has changed the office market, perhaps irrevocably. Whilst some refer to “bounce back” and return to “normal”, others say the changes to work patterns and retail behaviours are permanent. 

Questions arise, is it permanent or temporary? If it is temporary; how long is temporary? What then can we do with underused or vacant property in the interim? 

Introducing Sustainable Temporary Adaptive Reuse (STAR) 

STAR is a strategy to deal with under occupancy as a low-level intervention. It is an alternative option to mothballing and demolition. 

Adaptive reuse projects tend to be on a whole building basis, reusing stock which has been vacant for long periods. Though there are examples on shorter timescales, such as temporary use for buildings scheduled for demolition, a more nuanced understanding is needed as even when vacancy rates are high, wholly vacant buildings can be in short supply. Here partial or temporary adaptive reuse may be more practical. 

STAR is a reactivation strategy for underused buildings that can be temporary, or may lead to permanent change of use. It can be on a whole or part-building basis and is useful if the vacancy is perceived as temporary, or to test demand in new, or unfamiliar, markets. 

However, while temporary adaptive reuse can re-activate space with economic benefits, environmental costs can be an unintended consequence. 

Though adaptive reuse retains embodied energy, temporary reuse may increase adaptation rates, potentially increasing construction waste. 

Thus principles of compatible use, reusable fixtures and fittings, are important in STAR. Addressing unintended environmental consequences of temporary reuse needs consideration from the outset. In STAR’s favour, the low-cost economic drivers of STAR align with minimising consumption of materials, fixtures and fittings. Sustainability can be enhanced if infrastructure is developed which encourages reuse or recycling of waste generated by the temporary nature of STAR. 

Real-world examples of temporary adaptive reuse demonstrate STAR is viable. LGAs in Australia promote temporary reuse on a partial building basis. 

These tend to be street or precinct level initiatives, seeking to re-invigorate footfall frequency in public space, part of economic renewal. 

An example is Melbourne’s Shopfront Activation Program, reusing retail space temporarily to artists, entrepreneurs and artisan makers to test business ideas and build connections between entrepreneurs and the commercial property sector. 

Sydney’s Popup Theatre Pilot Project, examined spaces for temporary reuse to theatre and performance spaces. The challenges revealed highlight the need for greater focus on the socio-technical decisions which enable temporary adaptive reuse. 

STAR practices need to be evaluated across different types of vacant spaces and combinations of viable new uses. This evaluation needs to be done before we can claim with certainty that STAR can be a generalisable, mainstream option in the economic recovery from COVID.  

?NOTE: The STAR Toolkit, funded by the City of Sydney, will be developed over the next three years to provide these resources for stakeholders.

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