Why Multifamily Adaptive Reuse Is on the Rise

Outdated and under-occupied office properties are prime targets for investors.

Twenty-five percent of all professional jobs in North America will be remote by the end of 2023, according to Theladders.com. Ladders’ CEO Marc Cenedella characterized it as the largest societal change in the U.S. since the end of World War II: “Work consumes about half of our waking hours. So when you change where you’re working and how you’re working, it impacts your entire life.”

That means a lot of empty office suites and a lot of new opportunities for multi-family owners to increase their portfolios. But there are few things you should know before embarking on an adaptive reuse project of this kind.

Conversion 101

Every adaptive reuse project requires the ownership, design and construction teams to make adjustments when conditions inside the building are different from what was assumed, noted David Block, development director at Evergreen Real Estate Group. “Ground-up development is much more predictable,” he said

READ ALSO: How Adaptive Reuse Aids Multifamily Development

Building, mechanical and electrical systems are always a challenge in adaptive reuse projects, observed David Kennedy, housing design leader of architecture and planning firm Bailey Edward. “Other challenges include the exterior envelope, updating for energy efficiency or at least effective weatherproofing,” he added.

Then there’s the need to remove asbestos and other environmentally hazardous materials. “When it comes to financing conversion projects, always be prepared for surprises and ensure that budget is allocated for such discoveries,” warned ACRES Capital CEO Mark Fogel.

office to apartment conversion

The Wray in Washington, D.C., by Bozzuto was formerly a State Department office building. Image courtesy of Bozzuto

The added cost and time might lead investors to favor newer buildings for conversions. But experts say that would be a big mistake since many buildings from the ’60s and ’70s cut corners, and older buildings tend to have greater interior details and handsome public spaces worth preserving. “Older (pre-1950) office buildings tend to be better suited for conversion to housing,” Kennedy noted.

Hotels also convert well to housing, particularly for smaller units, Kennedy says. Shopping malls, on the other hand, are a challenge. One criterion for choosing an adaptive-friendly building is how much you can reuse. “It may not be economically feasible if you cannot save 75 percent or more of the existing structure,” Kennedy advised.

For Block, the shape of the building matters. “Generally, narrower buildings are easier to adapt for different uses than wider buildings because space at the core of a wide building is difficult to reuse without sufficient access to outside light and air,” he said. “Former office buildings, convents and parish houses, and many types of buildings constructed without central air conditioning can be good reuse candidates.”

Block’s firm has completed two projects with hospitals converted to senior living properties with the help of Evergreen’s own in-house construction division.

Parking can be another challenge for urban repurposing. Look for projects that qualify for transit-oriented-development zoning, when possible, Kennedy suggests. He also recommends researching the code for triggers that may require unplanned work and making sure you understand the existing structure with regard to seismic issues, new loads and the like.

Fogel further suggests ensuring that the contractors you’re working with have experience with adaptive reuse and making sure the subsidies you’re planning to use are in place and fully usable before commencing work. This is particularly true for older structures, where care is essential.

“The forensic phase of adaptive reuse is so important to the success of a project and avoiding the ‘gotchas’ that might otherwise derail a project or add to its expense,” said Kelly Naylor, interior design practice lead at multidisciplinary design firm BKV Group.

Conversion Opportunities

While all of these cautions provide reasons to hesitate before taking on an adaptive reuse project, there are some worthwhile offsets.

“There are several federal programs that can be used to assist with financing,” Kennedy pointed out. These include Low Income Housing Tax Credits , Historic Tax Credits (for buildings more than 50 years old), Rental Assistance Demonstration for improving public housing and the New Market Tax Credit Program. Many local jurisdictions have their own incentives to spur much needed housing stock.

Taking advantage of historic tax credits can be challenging, however, Fogel cautioned. “It takes years to gain approvals with no guarantees of acceptance,” he said. “These tax credit programs are often very specific to a particular geographic region or municipality.”

On the other hand, he notes, there can be ESG benefits for these projects potentially tied to sustainability and community redevelopment.

Evergreen converted Ravenswood Hospital in Chicago into a senior housing community. Photo courtesy of Bozzuto

Office-to-Apartments Success Stories

One successful office-to-apartment success story is a handsome Washington, D.C.-based apartment building called The Wray, managed by Bozzuto Management Co. This former art deco State Department office building in the desirable Foggy Bottom neighborhood has 158 market-rate units.

The building already had gorgeous details, according to Bozzuto Regional Director Lauren Jarboe: “When you enter the lobby, you see the mosaic tile lobby floor. There is also the State Department Call box in the lobby that was originally slated to be taken down, but our residents enjoyed seeing that history.”

The Wray’s numerous modern amenities increase its appeal. These include a pet spa, package room, bike storage, clubroom, rooftop amenity space with grills and fire pits, and a fitness center.

Another success story is BKV’s 121-unit Arc at Old Colony, an “adaptive reuse of a 19th century office building to student housing in Chicago’s Loop, where we were able to retain many of the vintage details like marble floors, coffered ceilings and existing wall textures while delivering a modern living experience,” Naylor said.

This project type requires some specific programmatic elements, the designer added: “When we assess a creative reuse project for student housing, we look closely at how we can incorporate the required balance of social and academic space, individual units and the health/wellness space that is increasingly important in this sector.” You also have to be able to integrate the latest technology for schoolwork and leisure, she noted.

Managing converted buildings is not that much different than a new construction building, according to Jarboe: “There can be unique features and differences between the buildings, but we are used to seeing that between new construction work, as well.” Tenant profiles tend to be similar too, she says. Many are unaware of the building’s history unless it’s part of the project’s marketing campaign.

“Adaptive reuse fits our firm philosophy of supporting and advocating for sustainable design,” Kennedy shared. “The renovation projects we work on give existing real estate new life and functions. The need for affordable housing is in all our urban centers and ground-up construction is not always the most economical solution to meet this demand.”

Meeting that demand is where doing well and doing good can perfectly align in the multi-family industry.

Jamie Gold, CKD, CAPS, MCCWC is a Forbes.com contributor, wellness design consultant, industry speaker, and award-winning author of Wellness by Design (Tiller Press, 2020).

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