Luton has a shortage of affordable homes. You wouldn’t know it from the parcels of unused urban land that dot the town, but there is constant pressure to deliver new houses. At the same time, I regularly walk past empty office blocks in the town centre, some of which have been unoccupied for years. Could they be turned into homes?
It’s not an original thought. The charities Empty Homes and Abolish Empty Office Buildings both lobby for it. It turns up in government plans from time to time, and planning guidance has changed to make it easier.
On the other hand, town centres are often better places to work than to live. It would be wiser to refurbish office space in the centre than to build new office parks at the edge of town and have people drive to them, a major reason why Luton’s are empty. Besides, we may need those offices in future, so we don’t want to lose that office space entirely. What we really need is a way of making temporary homes in office buildings – another context for meanwhile development, which I explored with some examples last week.
Is it possible to fit out offices as homes, on a temporary basis? In theory, yes. Modern office blocks are designed so that they can be reconfigured according to occupants’ needs, adding partition walls, meeting rooms and so on without major disruption. Utilities are run under the floor or overhead above a suspended ceiling, and can be delivered where they’re needed. So if we can create office cubicles, can we create habitation pods of some kind?
ZedFactory have had a go at exactly that, and it is described in Bill Dunster’s book ZedLife. The project was in Amersfoort in the Netherlands, where 30-40% of office space was empty while 16,000 people needed homes. Working with the One Planet Foundation, the architects designed a residential unit that could be installed in existing office blocks.
The modular units have a steel frame and insulated panels, making cosy little apartments to any size required. They come with small kitchens and bathrooms, designed to plug into the existing electricity, water and sewage systems of the building. They also proposed wrapping the office block in solar panels to make it a zero carbon development.
The Hub is another project from the Netherlands, this time from the architects Kraaijvanger. It’s a self-contained unit that can be installed in a disused office or factory, instantly providing the space with the utilities of a home.
The Hub has two iterations. The most important one is a single unit with a bathroom on the inside and a kitchen on the outside, with lighting, heating and internet facilities already built in. A second ‘BedHub’ provides a separate room for sleeping. The idea is that the hubs could be leased, turning unused buildings into comfortable dwellings for as long as they were needed.
Those are both conceptual ideas, and I don’t know if either of them have been taken up commercially at all. No doubt there are similar ideas out there too, and I suspect that there may be growing demand for housing solutions like these. More people working from home, flexible working and internet communications have all reduced the importance of big central offices. The situation may be exacerbated by an aging population, or by the automation of jobs. At the same time, housing prices have risen beyond the reach of younger generations and the market is struggling to provide affordable housing. We might need more creative ideas for reusing space in future.