Commercial property

Converting vacant commercial premises into residential accommodation

While the government may be looking for ways to ameliorate the state’s housing crisis, turning vacant commercial properties into residential housing is a policy that hasn’t been seen here on a large scale.

In the United States, a record 20,100 apartment conversions were expected to be completed in 2021. Over the past two years, an estimated 41% of converted apartments are from former office buildings.

Meanwhile, in Ireland there are plenty of vacant commercial properties just waiting to be renovated.

According to the Geo Directory Commercial Vacancy Rates report for the fourth quarter of 2021, there were 29,317 vacant commercial units scattered throughout the state. This is the highest level recorded by GeoDirectory in nine years of reporting.

The county with the highest rate of vacant commercial properties was Sligo at 20%. Leitrim and Roscommon followed closely with 17.1%.

As far as towns go, Ballybofey in County Donegal had the highest commercial vacancy rate in the state, at 30%.

Overall, the report found that commercial vacancies rose in 15 of 26 counties.

As the country emerges from the pandemic and more people work from home, it remains to be seen if more offices are about to become redundant.

With so many unused vacant properties and as the housing crisis continues to plague the country, it is hard to understand why vacant commercial properties are not being converted into residential accommodation.

wasted space

In his book A little history of Dublin’s futureformer Irish Times environment editor Frank McDonald details some successful examples of converting vacant commercial premises into residential accommodation.

In 2015 Clarendon Properties, owned by Paddy McKillen and Tony Leonard, installed eight large luxury apartments above the H&M store on College Green in Dublin.

According to Mr McDonald, no one had ever lived in the old Hibernian Bank building, but Clarendon felt it would be ‘wasted’ as offices.

Talk to breakingnews.ieFrank McDonald said there was no reason not to convert vacant commercial space on a large scale.

“I always think that when it comes to redundant buildings, the first choice should be to retrofit for residential,” McDonald said.

“I speak to you from a converted 1840s warehouse in Temple Bar which was refurbished by Temple Bar Properties in 1995.

“It has five apartments spread over three commercial units on the ground floor with independent access from the street to the upper floors.

“It was only natural for Temple Bar Properties, in its heyday, to convert the upper floors of buildings into accommodation.

“It was doable then, and I see no reason why it wouldn’t be doable now.”

McDonald also pointed to the problem of office buildings built in the 1970s and 1980s that no longer meet contemporary office requirements.

“It makes a lot of sense to me to convert these buildings into housing rather than demolishing them,” he said.

“The demolition of buildings has a huge carbon cost. Every building contains embodied carbon. If we demolish, we only increase the burden of climate change.

“We really need to consider in any case the possibility of retrofitting a building for alternative uses rather than going to demolition and replacement.”

“A systemic failure”

Mr McDonald criticized government housing policy which he said ‘has been largely determined by the housing lobby’.

“What this entails is the creation of building blocks of flats, which is the most profitable model of development and is of interest to large institutional investors.”

An alternative approach suggested by Mr McDonald would be to convert vacant properties building by building, giving jobs to small-scale building contractors.

“That doesn’t mean you have to pack a lot of small units to make it viable.

“It can be done on the basis, for example, in a standard four- or five-storey building, of one apartment per floor, which would be relatively generous with two or three rooms.”

Mr McDonald also underlined the point of affordability through conversion, adding that the housing crisis in Dublin is essentially an affordability crisis.

Although the conversion of vacant and derelict commercial properties into residences has not happened in Ireland on a large scale as it has in other countries, Mr McDonald said there was no reason why it couldn’t be fact.

“The local authorities have not been proactive about all this. There is no doubt about it, ”said Mr Mc Donald.


Vacant and abandoned housing: a response to the state’…

“There is the Abandoned Sites Act, and it just hasn’t been enforced in many cases.

“The purpose of the legislation we have is to end abandonment and discourage the hoarding of derelict buildings and have them refurbished or developed.

“A lot of [local authorities] seem to think that older buildings are liabilities rather than assets.

“It is a systemic failure to recognize the value of city buildings as liabilities rather than assets and potential future homes where people would have immediate access to shops and other services.”