Converting a commercial property into a home may be challenging, but the process can be uniquely rewarding. Find advice and inspiration for when you come across a property you want to convert.
When it comes to choosing a potential home, most of us look no further than buildings already in use as houses and apartments.
But perhaps it’s time for us to broaden our horizons? These days, developers and renovators from Melbourne to Manhattan are scouring cities for commercial properties, including offices, shops and warehouses, with the potential to be transformed into contemporary living spaces.
In some cities, like Sydney, the trend is driven by the shortage of residential property.
In addition, modern working practices such as remote working and hot-desking can mean there is less demand for office premises, particularly those that are older in style.
Meanwhile on the high street, the increase in superstores and rise of online shopping are two factors leading to fewer small shops.
So many landlords and property developers are taking advantage of the opportunity to transform tired commercial buildings into prime urban real estate.
Looking at some of the commercial properties available these days, it’s clear there’s huge potential to create amazing living spaces. Warehouses, manufacturing facilities and even covered car parks can offer generous amounts of space and the opportunity to create a bespoke layout.
Former shops and offices (including post offices) can be converted into homes in the heart of the town or city, saving their occupants hours of commuting time each week.
Old commercial properties may also offer character and features that newer buildings can’t, and renovators keen to create one-of-a-kind home are snapping them up.
Sydney architect Wade Little is currently working on transforming the city’s old Water Board Headquarters into a modern boutique hotel and apartment block, due for completion in late 2015.
He says renovations can bring out the character of the building: “Renovating a commercial property is an opportunity to find something beautiful and extraordinary and celebrate it. It’s also an opportunity to become more ingrained in the culture of a city.”
He says renovators need to approach such projects with their eyes open and should allow extra planning time when tackling unconventional properties. “You have to find out if there are planning or zoning constraints, which will affect whether a building can be re-used, demolished or redeveloped,” he advises. Contact your local council for more information about what is and isn’t permitted in your area and to find out more about building consents for change of use.
If the building is suitable for conversion to residential use, explore practical considerations such as whether there is sufficient floor to ceiling height; the location of power sources and plumbing; wall and window placements (windows on ground floor properties such as shops may need to be designed and positioned in keeping with those on the storeys above); whether or not the building has appropriate insulation (for noise as well as warmth); garbage storage and disposal; and car and access parking.
Ensuring there is sufficient daylight and ventilation in properties with deep floor plates (layouts) is particularly important; architects may have to be briefed to develop creative designs to help draw light and air into the centre of the building.
There may be health and safety requirements to meet too. Again, we advise contacting your local council to find out more (for example, noise and fire safety standards may affect the necessary thickness of walls). It’s important not to cut corners here.
Little highlights the importance of access to outdoor space., particularly in tight urban locations where a roof terrace may be the only option: “Commercial properties aren’t designed for living – for socializing relaxing and taking advantage of outdoor space. You need to think about the things that feed the soul – you don’t want to find yourself in a glass box where you can’t even open a window.”
Chris Stanley of Splinter Society Architecture, creators of House in a Warehouse in Victoria, agrees that the relationship between indoor and out should be a priority. “Happiness and delight come from a nice, warm, sun-filled house that connects with the garden on all sorts of levels.
House in a Warehouse uses plants and gardening in many ways to create a bit of a microclimate.
“Theres garden across all four levels of the house and each one opens up onto green spaces.” He says the home is built on sustainable principles and doesn’t compromise on living quality: “We’ve tried to give extra emphasis to quality of light and creating an open environment by ‘upspeccing’ the quality of the windows and opening them up to bring the happiness, life and warmth of an open living space. There’s also water capture and recycling and solar hot water – all the important sustainable attributes of quality homes these days.”
He advises renovators to establish their priorities before starting any project: “Getting your orientation and your connection bewtween indoor and outdoor spaces right is the first thing we do in any project. Once you’ve got those things right, everything else is a bonus.”
Giving a tired old property a new lease of life can be immensely satisfying, but renovating a commercial building is often challenging and expensive.
Make sure you have a realistic idea of the costs involved by investing time in research and planning before you commit to a property.
Architects also recommend getting a second opinion – from council, planners, architect and builders – wherever possible.
Be cautious when it comes to agreeing a purchase price for the property you’re interested in. If its market value is unclear and there have been no similar properties for sale in the area, it could be wise to employ a professional property valuer.
Bear in mind that adapting a commercial property for residential use is likely to be a sizeable project and keeping to your budget can be tough.
Rewiring, new plumbing and structural changes, (such as adding a new roof), are big ticket items; so make sure you get accurate costings for these and any other work that requires specialist tradespeople.
Be sure to allow a contingency – we suggest around 20-30 per cent of your total budget – to cover unexpected costs.
Investing in the services of a qualified project manager to ensure the work proceeds on time and on budget may be money well spent.
The contractor factor
Whenever possible use contractors recommended by friends and family, or ask the contractor for details of some recent clients and call a few to ask if they were happy with the work, it’s also worth checking with your local Chamber of Commerce to see if any complaints have been filed against them.
This article by Persephone Nicholas featured on page 106 of Issue 012 of Renovate Magazine. Renovate Magazine is an easy to use resource providing fresh inspiration and motivation at every turn of the page.
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*All information is believed to be true at time of publishing and is subject to change.
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