Living in the Office

27th April 2020

We spoke to two of our planners who own and live in flats that were originally designed to be offices. Their homes were created under the government’s permitted development rights, which allow the conversion of offices to residential use without the need of a planning application. We’ve asked them for both their professional and personal opinions, having experienced both sides of the change of use process.

What is permitted development?

The initiative was intended to address the shortage of housing and reuse redundant office buildings which were no longer suitable for current working practices and it has been successful in creating large numbers of new accommodation. However, there are concerns regarding the quality of the accommodation for residents in some developments, which has been highlighted more acutely during the current COVID-19 lockdown.

What does ‘change of use’ allow?

The criteria for changing the use of an office building to residential use only require information regarding transport and highway impact, land contamination, flood risk and noise be submitted to the local planning authority.

There is no provision or requirement for alterations or extensions to buildings. Therefore, the layout of the site, the envelope of the building and the position and size of existing doors and windows must remain unchanged. Depending on the location and siting of the building, this can cause living accommodation to be dark and without outdoor amenity space, which cannot be required through these planning controls. Unsurprisingly, this kind of environment can negatively impact one’s wellbeing, which is being felt especially at present whilst travel outside the home is restricted. Equally, however, there are many examples of large, open plan accommodation with generous windows and light having been created.

The standard of living

It does seem ironic that these permitted development rights, where no control is exercised over the size of the internal accommodation, the outlook from windows or the provision of any amenity space, were introduced around the same time as the government introduced national minimum space standards to control the design of housing schemes where planning permission is required. However, the success of the sale of units in these conversions has shown that there is a demand for a range of accommodation, both smaller and larger than the national standards.

Why purchase a property that had a previous use?

The fact that the property was an office to residential conversion wasn’t at the forefront when deciding to purchase the property. The main factors were the size of the living accommodation, excellent connectivity and access to public transport, shops, bars and local parks.

Developments can achieve a high quality within smaller apartment blocks, for example around 20 flats, allowing for large 1- and 2-bedroom units with sizeable living accommodation compared with other new build residential accommodation. Unfortunately, there are also examples where the standard of these conversions has not been as high due to their poor location, for example on business parks, with poor outlook and away from the services, infrastructure and local parks that a town centre offers.

Working and living in the office

Working from home while living in a converted office during lockdown has its positives and negatives. The open plan space with large bedrooms creates a degree of openness and there is enough space to set up a workstation, although this is not separate to the main living area. A conscious effort is required to maintain a designated work area and stick to a routine of taking regular breaks and going for walks, so it is possible to relax in the same room too. It has been particularly difficult not having access to the outdoors in the form of a balcony or garden. With government lockdown rules limiting you to leave your property for only one form of exercise or a visit to the supermarket for essential items each day, now more than ever access to a private or communal outdoor amenity space feels essential, especially when the weather is good.

What can be done?

Given the chance to alter permitted development regulations, we would suggest that:

  • The provision of amenity space should be required wherever possible; and
  • Developers should be able to make minor alterations to the building to enhance the accommodation within the remit of permitted development.

The ability to include even a Juliet balcony would make a big difference to the feel of the accommodation internally, the wellbeing of its residence and would also add value. These additions are elements that most developers would willingly include where possible, but do not because the current legislation does not allow for it without the need to make a separate planning application, which leads to additional cost, delays and uncertainty.

The lockdown effect

Permitted development rights have undoubtedly helped the housing crisis: providing large numbers of varied size flats with open plan living in central locations across the country. However, the yearning to be outside intensifies as the Coronavirus lockdown continues with no real indication of when the restrictions will be lifted. Now more than ever, the shortcomings of some of these developments are being felt by many, emphasising the importance of amenity space.  It is no secret that spending time outside in the sunlight and with nature improves your health and happiness and therefore the lack of that can have a detrimental effect on an individual’s wellbeing.

Amendments to the legislation to allow for the addition of balconies for accommodation such as this would benefit the occupiers immensely, especially in times such as these. Office to residential conversions can be a great place to live and we strongly support the principle, but further improvement is most definitely possible and would certainly be welcomed both by developers and residents.

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