What would happen to those empty office buildings?

One of the most debated stories coming out of this pandemic is our relationship to work, more accurately with the location of work with different approaches: WFH model (Work from Home), hybrid model, back to work model.

Photo by Ekaterina Bolovtsova on Pexels.com

Some people (employees ) are favoring the WFH, some (employers) are not. The most recent WFH disagreement story I read is Apple’s mandated office days vs. employees’ wish to have flexible office days approach. 

My interest veers towards something else…not the merits of WFH policies, but the physical building – Apple Park– the huge circular building that sits In the green area of Cupertino, California. 

I wonder what would happen to the building if ALL the employees decided to work from home.

I read so much about the building when it was first designed by the famous architecture firm, Fosters and Partnership back in 2009.

With more existing buildings being available due to different working arrangements such as WFH, the strategies of transforming office buildings into some other purposed buildings would be the first step back into our sustainability discussion in construction industries.

Sustainability in construction is the topic that is going to have a new and urgent meaning post-pandemic.

What is Adaptive Reuse?

It essentially means the same thing as renovation/ rehabilitation/ restoration of old buildings. Instead of demolishing old buildings, transform them into better working buildings with a new purpose.

Photography: Ben Rahn

The term, Adaptive Reuse is well known in the construction industry, and we architects have been doing these types of projects well before the pandemic. Altering an industrial building into a cool new condo building would be an example. Turning a wasteland into a lively green park setting – New York City’s Highline ParkEvergreen Brickworks building in Toronto is another great example of Adaptive Reuse efforts.

In addition to having a “new purpose” of the building, Adoptive Reuse also has another significant objective: sustainability. The effort to minimize environmental impact by considering old buildings and transforming them into sustainable, low energy consumption green buildings is a critical element in sustainability.

Being conscious of how we approach each project is the crux of a sustainability discussion in the architecture and construction industries. However, with this pandemic, everything changed, or I should say everything stopped.  

As we are inching towards the “end” of this pandemic, I believe the topic of sustainability will “come back” as it directly impacts another huge global crisis, climate change.

Years ago, I was at the architecture conference and one of the speakers said 

“ The most sustainable building is the one that is already built”. 

I thought it was a brilliant statement to make. It was one of those a-ha moments; it was simple, true, and also a powerful statement I wish I thought of. 

The terms, carbon footprint, carbon zero, carbon anything are becoming ubiquitous in our everyday vocabularies. Especially being an architect there is an additional burden in what we do and how we contribute (both negative and positive) has a huge impact on our environment. As all of us in the construction industries work towards designing and building NEW sustainable buildings, we also need to look at our existing buildings as well.  

As we are at the tail end of the pandemic (I hope), there would be many physical and social changes like WFH coming.  

While debating the merits of those changes…the one question we have not asked ourselves is what would happen to remaining things (like buildings) once the new changes take over.  

Challenges of working with existing (old) buildings

Reusing an existing building seems like a perfect green solution for business owners or developers until they are not.

One obvious reason is the “old” Part. These buildings have many problems and issues like asbestos, ageing structure, old plumbings, defunct electrical systems…the lists go on. The cost of fixing or upgrading these old buildings can be overwhelming (a.k.a. too expensive) to building owners, developers, especially to homeowners with much smaller budgets.  

As I experience with my past project, Hepburn Engineering Building, going through the cost analysis for retrofitting the old industrial building into a green office building was an expensive undertaking the owner was wary of…at least in the beginning.  

Convincing the owner to go with retrofitting rather than building new was a group effort; myself and his employees. Hearing from his employees’ comments about the existing building with “ characters”, and how the existing building fits within the context of the neighborhood and finally seeing my design sketches to use the features of the existing building help to bring him around.

Incorporating old wooden columns or leaving the original building name with old dates as part of design ideas, or getting a “unique” building that no one else has all helped with his decision.

With this new interest in retrofitting, the owner decided to research different government funding options to retrofit the old building at the end.

Office building turning into housing

Transforming an office building into a housing building is a definite possibility in the post-pandemic era!

As Torontonians are well aware, the lack of affordable (or non-affordable) housing is a huge issue we often read about. The issue stems from many factors such as affordability, availability, population growth in a metropolitan city like Toronto.

Although I have been reading about people moving out of the city during the pandemic, the housing crisis will be an issue that is going to be talked about again once we get over our “immediate” crisis, the pandemic.

The discussion of the Housing Crisis would continue, but with new perspectives and wisdom that came from the pandemic. Coming up with good (hopefully) design ideas to solve or minimize our current housing stock would be the first step towards looking and planning into our future.  

Seeing the transformation of old/ dilapidated buildings into something new, better and unexpected are definitely the job satisfaction we architects would like to experience more often.

As all of us are focussing on getting our second vaccination shots while hoping for our life to go back, there would be many changes that are going to happen whether we are ready or not, some expected some are not.

Final Thought

While seeing (more like seeking) the light at the end of our long COVID tunnel, I’m convinced that we will never go back to our old normal. One of the biggest social changes from this unprecedented history in our life is our attitude towards work; how we want to work individually and collectively with others.

I am sure the discussion on WFH policies would evolve well into the future. Although no one can predict what our future might look like, I am certain it would involve many empty office buildings turning into some other type.

Recognizing the importance of one’s well being whether physically or mentally has been an absolute right wake-up call all of us needed.

The pandemic brought the wake up with heavy price; blocking the basic necessity of human connections and interactions. 

I have a crazy idea that Apple executives would not approve as I think about those Apple employees’ dilemma of setting their own workdays, hours.

How about we let all their employees work from home and rent their building ( or portion of the building) and open the park to the public to enjoy? 

After all, the name of the building is Apple Park 🙂

Editor’s Note: This post was originally published in Life Outside of Design Studio and has been updated for accuracy and completeness.

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