Office-to-Residential Conversions: Mandates, Myths, and Possibilities

September 12, 2023|32 Minutes
1 St. Clair West rooftop rendering
1 St. Clair West, Toronto

Hybrid work continues to evolve across North America. With vacancy rates skyrocketing since the pandemic began, an “urban doom loop” is endangering the vitality and economic drivers of our central business districts.

In this episode of the Gensler Design Exchange podcast, Steven Paynter and Duanne Render of Gensler are joined by Kate Collignon of HR&A and Egon Terplan from UC Berkeley’s College of Environmental Design. They weigh the opportunities and challenges of one proposed solution: converting the stockpile of empty offices into desperately needed housing.

Through insightful case studies and data-driven analysis, listeners gain key insights into making office-to-residential conversions a reality — or discovering alternate pathways to rescue our downtowns from becoming ghost towns.

Top 5 Takeaways

  1. The office vacancy problem is growing — As leases expire and interest rates increase, building owners and developers are scrambling to find solutions.
  2. Not every vacant office building can be converted into housing — Unavoidable structural difficulties and the need for financial feasibility make conversions viable in only a handful of scenarios. We take a look at the efforts in San Francisco, as an example.
  3. Fast and clear public-private policies are critical — Public and private partnerships working fast, with support, and with clear and simple policies and procedures, is critical to making office-to-residential conversions work.
  4. Mixed-use downtowns are key — Simply adding housing may not attract people or strengthen long-term office demand. A diversity of destinations and activities is key to vibrancy.
  5. Office-to-residential conversions are not a silver bullet — It takes many strategies, from innovative tools, quick action, transparent policies, and out-of-the-box solutions to change and create places we want to be.

The downtown and office rental landscape continues to evolve in the wake of the pandemic, and some of the information mentioned in this episode references analysis conducted at the beginning of 2023, which reflects general trends in 2023 but might not match exact statistics from market analyses conducted later in the year.

Steven Paynter
Steven is the Global Building Transformation & Adaptive Reuse Leader at Gensler. Steven led Gensler’s original research team which developed a conversion algorithm for the rapid assessment of existing office building stock and ESG assessment. Widely regarded as an industry leader, Steven focuses on unlocking the value of Class B & C buildings by converting them to residential, shaping the future of cities, and the design of post-pandemic office buildings. Contact him at .
Duanne Render
Duanne is a regional leader of the Building Transformation & Adaptive Reuse practice, based in Toronto. His leadership has been instrumental in establishing Gensler’s expertise in office-to-residential conversions. He has driven the analysis of hundreds of buildings for suitability for conversion, ranging from individual buildings to entire portfolios for both the public and private sectors. Contact him at .
Kate Collignon
Kate is a Partner at HR&A who shapes and manages the implementation of equitable downtown, waterfront, and neighborhood revitalization strategies. She additionally focuses on crafting district and campus plans that fuel innovation and economic development, and provides integrated development management services for non-profit and academic institutions.
Egon Terplan
Egon is a Robert S. Cornish Endowed Chair of Regional Planning and lecturer in city & regional planning at UC Berkeley’s College of Environmental Design. He specializes in regional economic development, land use, transportation, government reform, and regional policy.
Brandon Larcom
Brandon is a global leader of Gensler’s Product Development practice. As Co-Director of Product Development, he specializes in business development, identifying future design industry trends, and licensing for global product rollouts. Brandon currently hosts and co-produces the Gensler Design Exchange podcast, facilitating a dialogue between design experts, creative trendsetters, and thought leaders to discuss how Gensler is enhancing the human experience through the world of design. Contact him at .