A new study by globally-reputed design studio Hassell reveals that there are approximately 90 office buildings built before 1990 in Melbourne that could be converted into housing for up to 20,000 people.

Hassell partnered with Ethos Urban on the research study conducted on behalf of the Property Council of Australia, with the comprehensive property audit of the city centre identifying these buildings, which represent roughly 6.5% of CBD office buildings built before 1990, and can be repurposed into 10,000-12,000 new apartments, significantly adding to Melbourne’s housing supply through adaptive reuse.

The study focused on buildings constructed before 1990 since they are more likely to require upgrades and are often a suitable scale for residential purposes.

"The post pandemic reality poses many challenges for the Melbourne CBD and the future of older commercial buildings. This transformative period, defined by strong demand for premium office space, has resulted in a lot of sub-prime office space being severely underutilised,” says Cath Evans, Victorian executive director at the Property Council of Australia.

Unoccupied buildings

Hassell principal Ingrid Bakker explained that adaptive reuse could contribute to reactivating the city and if done well, offers a sustainable approach to building regeneration.

“We see this as a big opportunity to work with the whole sector to drive more sustainable solutions for existing buildings in our cities.

“A radical rethink is needed to make these buildings the most sustainable, socially useful assets they can possibly be. We’re not saying every office building in the city can be converted into residential, but there are some that definitely can – and we’re trying to demonstrate how,” said Bakker.

Nick Brisbane, regional director for Victoria at Ethos Urban, says, “The environmental benefits are significant while it also addresses housing supply and affordability, CBD revitalisation, and breathes new life into hard-to-lease office spaces.”

“This is a global discussion, and the industry here also needs to review with a view to action planning policy reform that incentivises adaptive reuse for the benefit of Melbourne,” he added.

Victoria’s housing affordability crisis is placing significant strain on many Victorians who are already impacted by the rising cost of living.

“With sustainability also at the forefront of decision making for many businesses, the environmental dividends gained from keeping embodied carbon in place in these buildings are substantial. With innovative planning, building and tax policy changes, the industry will have more ability to make these building conversion projects a much-needed reality,” said Evans.

While adapting existing office buildings to create homes presents an important opportunity, there are additional ways to re-life buildings in general to ensure their longevity.

Hassell is behind different types of adaptive reuse projects, such as Computershare Global HQ, Westlab Experience Centre, 120 Collins St and Sir Charles Hotham Hotel in Melbourne, Sydney Theatre Company’s The Wharf and The Department of Lands Building in Sydney, plus ANU Birch in Canberra.

“The best new buildings should be hyper flexible, have repurposing built in and consider how the building adapts and can be re-used over time,” concluded Bakker.

Image: Office to home conversions and additions provide opportunities to give older buildings a new lease on life, reinvigorate CBDs, and foster communities in our cities. (Source: Hassell)