Marissa Kasdan – The Flexible Future for Underutilized Office Spaces

Wealth Management Real Estate | Midyear Outlook 2021

August 1, 2021

The dramatic shift toward remote working, as prompted by the pandemic and subsequent national shutdown, may imply a short-term solution, leading to hybrid schedules and perhaps transitioning back to traditional in-office work scenarios. However, the workforce’s desire for increased flexibility predates the pandemic, as the rise of the gig economy, growth of the tech industry, and new technologies further support the ability of professionals to work and collaborate remotely. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, roughly 29 percent of college educated employees worked from home either full or part time from 2017 to 2018, well before the pandemic sent the American workforce home. By mid-2019, JLL Research reported a steady decline in office leasing activity throughout the United States, indicating a broader shift in the commercial office market. Meanwhile, cities across the country are experiencing dramatic housing shortages, with record low real estate inventory and rising home prices.

To confront these two issues simultaneously, commercial office building owners may consider a second life for their spaces as multifamily residential, addressing community needs as well as increased profit potential. Reimagined office properties frequently exhibit unique design characteristics, often marketed as “luxury living” with high ceilings, concrete floors, expansive windows, and exposed structure, ductwork, and plumbing. However, converting conventional offices to residential often poses inherent design challenges. Most notably, purpose-built multifamily buildings, typically arranged along a double-loaded corridor for maximum building efficiency, often include units at roughly 32-feet deep, lining a six-foot-wide corridor for a building floor plate at approximately 70-feet deep. As required to achieve a desired mix of unit sizes, the unit widths are varied to provide a range of bedroom and bathroom configurations and associated unit square footages. Conventional office buildings, however, generally occupy much deeper floor plates, leaving inefficient void spaces toward the center of the building when paired with typical multifamily units.

As a solution for adaptive reuse of underutilized office spaces, KTGY’s R+D Studio developed Flex Flats, a conceptual unit plan design specifically created to fit within the typical 30-foot column grid of many conventional office buildings. Rather than maintaining a fixed unit depth and varying the width for unit size variation, Flex Flats proposes maintaining a fixed 30-foot width and vary the depth from 30 to 60 feet, to accommodate existing shafts, utilities, and vertical circulation. The narrow and deep units proposed by Flex Flats incorporate interior spaces with moveable walls to provide flexibility and functionality to residents and high interior windows to help natural light reach deep within the units while providing an acoustic barrier for privacy. The added flexibility created by moveable walls addresses the new and unique ways residents use their homes, as home offices, home gyms, and for temporary visitors. Increasingly diverse family situations further support the need for flexible spaces. With movable walls, built-in storage, drop zones and package storage closets, the Flex Flats concept supports recent trends in multifamily home design.

Every struggling site deserves reexamination for new opportunities of an advantageous programmatic future. Adaptive reuse of underutilized office to residential may only be one of many potential solutions for these design challenges. However, with the widespread need for housing facing communities nationwide, it is a solution worth essential consideration.