Transforming Empty Office Buildings into Housing
In the wake of changing work dynamics after the pandemic, empty office buildings are a common sight. Meanwhile, the need is dire for more housing in the city. Many are seeing this as an opportunity to solve two problems at once, and a sustainable solution for urban living to boot.
January 5, 2024
We recently engaged with the City of Seattle to begin the process for converting an empty office building in Seattle’s Queen Anne neighborhood to multifamily housing. It’s an exciting opportunity partnering with Stream Real Estate — read more about it at the DJC, Seattle Times, and The Real Deal.
Much has been said about the need (and opportunity) to convert empty office buildings to housing. But, office building conversion is not actually that easy. Size, age, type of construction — and more — weigh heavily on the project, adding complication (and therefore cost) to the project. Identifying good candidates for conversion to multifamily housing is a bit like playing an architectural version of Where’s Waldo.
Luckily, our team includes Erin Parker, NCARB who spearheaded the Washington Building, a historic office tower in Tacoma that was recently converted to housing. She brings extensive experience understanding how all the pieces have to go together and what to look for in a viable building for office-to-housing conversion.
The project we are working on in Queen Anne appears to be Seattle’s first office-to-residential conversion of the post-pandemic era. So, what makes this building special?
Jill Burdeen, our Principal of Multifamily Housing, says, “This particular building is a bit of a unicorn. A lot of people consider historic buildings for residential conversions because they have inherently smaller floor plates to better accommodate unit depths, but older buildings come with a lot of complications, from toxic materials to necessary structural and system updates. High-rises can be expensive to modify and typically have large floor plates. This ’80s-style building might not seem like an obvious venture, but this particular structure and right-sized floor plate make it an ideal candidate for a conversion project. As a design team, we were able to help the client visualize a modern residential building coming from this prototypical, low-rise office building that other people have overlooked.”
Design is, frankly, about solving problems and what is so fun about this project is that it is not only a design problem revolving around how we convert an ’80s style, ribbon-window, low-rise office building into something people want to live in, but it is also an analytical challenge. Each property has pros and cons when it comes to conversion, all to be balanced with the potential cost of purchase. Our team at Board & Vellum is able to quickly work with developers and investors to understand which projects could be a good fit for converting to housing.
In the end, empty office buildings do nothing to enliven a neighborhood. Bringing residents to where services were made to support office workers helps ensure neighborhoods stay activated and the businesses that support them can flourish. It is part of an overall path to help restore our hammered business districts still reeling from the emptying of office spaces from the Covid-19 pandemic.
We’re always happy to work with great developers needing someone to advocate for them on transformative projects like these. We’re deeply excited to work on this project, and we look forward to sharing more as this and other projects progress.