John Toms: Will converting empty offices into residential properties be the new normal?

John Toms on the implications for city centres if the transition of properties from commercial to residential becomes commonplace.

John Toms: Will converting empty offices into residential properties be the new normal?

As we continue to struggle with the changes to our lives arising from coronavirus, one of the issues which has affected everyone is our workplace, where we work and how we work.

Many people have taken to the changes with minimal fuss, enjoying a more flexible approach by working from home. In some respects, productivity has improved and, for many people, their working lives and routines have changed multiple times.

Others have clearly struggled with the concept of working from home, either because of distractions or the lack of structure a workplace can bring. The added difficulties of children being off school have also made home life more awkward.

Most employers have shown a flexible attitude, accepting perhaps that there are few options, and also that some degree of productivity is better than none. Being flexible and showing concern for the welfare of employees has never been so important.

This level of flexibility, aligned with the realisation that some roles can permanently function from home, has created a predicament where offices throughout the world are either vacant or partially used. Owners of large scale offices are rightly concerned that their investment might not be as viable as it once was.

From the tenants’ perspective, there is clearly a huge saving to be made if they can transition their business to a home-based environment. Whilst no percentages are available because this is very much a changing picture virtually daily, it is perhaps accurate to say that where employees can work from home they probably will.

This presents a position where converting commercial (mainly former office) premises into residential, as a consequence of a switch to home working for many sectors becomes normal.

This could create a more mixed city environment, with high quality offices being adapted to residential use. Aligned with this is the need to make changes to parking and leisure opportunities for those who ultimately decide to occupy former office premises. It may become normal for city centre apartments to contain an entire leisure complex.

John Toms: Will converting empty offices into residential properties be the new normal?

John Toms

Many cities have started to make changes to accommodate a less polluting environment, including my own city, Glasgow. For example, car parking spaces in George Square are being replaced with bike racks to encourage more cycling. The square has been closed to cars with bus gates at the approach roads and the west and east sides of the square closed to all traffic.

Wholesale changes to our environment, our road structures and how we work are likely to result in infrastructure changes to transport systems also; less people are needed for assisting the reduced commuter demands. Fewer coffee shops will be needed. A reduction in things like bus and train services will have a negative impact on jobs but a positive environmental outcome.

This all points toward a more relaxed lifestyle for many, with less commuting time, more family/leisure time, reduced pollution levels and, in the short term at least, a rise in construction projects to accommodate a new direction for many cities.

These changes to how we live and work also have an economic advantage which could provide a welcome boost to the construction sector. Architects and surveyors will be needed, as well as contractors, planning/design operators and leisure sector specialists.

One consideration at the forefront of all this is the fact that many of these commercial properties will have been adapted at some point in the past. Some were formerly townhouses for wealthy traders. Some were built for one purpose initially and changed over the years to suit another use.

It is crucial to know that although many of these offices will have been surveyed for the presence of asbestos in the past, it is the extent of the intrusive Refurbishment Survey that is critical here.

Second to this is the fact that any pre-2000 constructed premises legally requires to have an intrusive, scope-specific asbestos survey undertaken, matching the intended level of intrusions. This applies even if the building was altered recently; the point here is that it is still a pre-2000 constructed building, and it could still contain asbestos materials.

At Ensafe, we provide a full suite of asbestos services, and our survey teams are amongst the most experienced in the UK. We offer a service which includes a socially-distanced site pre-quote walk-through with your plans and drawings, confirmation of the scope of works and a quotation, all usually within 48 hours (depending on location).

Our site teams can attend to most of the central belt of Scotland within 40 minutes from our Lanarkshire base, and our focus is on ensuring that what we do is beneficial to your project.

  • John Toms is client relationships manager – Scotland at Ensafe Consultants. For more information contact
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