In the new city centre of Rotterdam sits a building much like any other in the Dutch port city.
People walk past it without much thought—it is, after all, a post-war building.
But this particular post-war building is an example of something that might help developers weather uncertain markets and financial crises.
It was designed to be a flexi-use space—one appropriate for a variety of different potential uses.
This not only cuts down on needing planning permission each time a change of use is required for a space but also if designed well at the outset, requires minimal retrofitting to transition from one use to another and minimises the need for demolition and rebuilding.
It presents a more efficient way of designing and planning buildings and potentially a city could more sustainably adapt to the needs of its changing population over time if its buildings were all designed with flexi-use in mind.
Rotterdam’s Groot Handelsgebouw was completed in 1953 with the spaces within able to change from commercial to retail to warehouse.
Special windows were used across the building so that it didn’t matter what was behind each window: a workshop, office, studio, showroom, warehouse or shop.
Oversized corridors allowed for the possibility of forklifts while the first three floors were accessible for trucks and cars to access spaces designated as warehouses.
The eight-storey building covers 120,000sq m and has 450 companies leasing space within it. It next door to the city’s central train station.
Currently it has a market hall on the ground floor as well as several shops, community spaces, amenities and facilities for the companies renting office spaces and gardens, terraces, events, and food and beverage premises.
The first issue is how we regulate how we build.
Building and design standards for commercial, residential and retail spaces differ, often making it difficult to design a space that several potential uses can be considered for.
“The answer from a planning perspective is that there’s different rules for office versus residential for planning,” Charter Keck Cramer’s director Richard Temlett says.
“Often with the office buildings, there’s not enough light or ventilation to comply with the BADS, the Better Apartment Design Standards.
“The floor plans are different, often with no balconies and the ceiling heights are different.”
But flexibility in design is becoming a recurring theme with AdaptNSW stating that it will help address climate change issues.
“Buildings can be designed to have flexible uses, such as adapting a community centre to become an evacuation centre or shelter from extreme weather events,” its website says.
In theory, flexi-use sounds like a win; you design for several possible uses and down the line there is no trouble in switching from one to another.
And while flexibility is key, not all uses work the same way.
According to Plan Melbourne’s Metropolitan Planning Strategy 2017-2050, while there is an increased demand for mixed-use areas and buildings and flexibility, there is an issue with moving a space from one use to another.
“While this approach supports greater flexibility of uses, it can also lead to residential uses competing with commercial uses and employment opportunities,” the plan says.
“Once a commercial site is converted for residential use, it is likely to be permanently lost to that market.”
This makes sense. Residents want to stay in one place for an extended time and it would be difficult to move between apartment and office uses as markets change without creating a sense of instability for residents and tenants.
This is why Groot Handelsgebouw was not designed with residential space in mind but can move between all other industrial, commercial and retail spaces.
Flexi-use also seems to be an idea geared towards new builds—something planned beforehand.
But Australia’s cities remain full of older buildings, slowly falling behind in standards, needing retrofitting.
Here, developers are thinking about how they can adapt, reuse and retrofit, opening the door to perhaps a sense of post-build flexibility around use—adapting for a different purpose than originally intended.
With the current increase in construction and material costs, the shortage of construction labour and a renewed focus on sustainability, adaptive reuse is making more and more sense.
It prevents more construction waste being diverted to landfill and reduces carbon emissions because a building isn’t being built from scratch.
The Global Alliance for Buildings and Construction’s 2018 report on buildings and construction says that the sector accounted for 36 per cent for final energy use and 39 per cent of energy and process-related carbon dioxide emissions.
Developers also are then able to work within planning and heritage law considerations that may prevent demolition but not retrofitting.
Aqualand is one developer taking a chance on retrofitting and renovating buildings but for an entirely new use.
However, it is not a cheap exercise.
“The process of breathing new life into existing buildings by repurposing their application is generally extremely costly due to the structural changes borne from converting commercial office floor plates and core configurations to suit a residential application,” Aqualand told The Urban Developer.
“These present complex challenges to be overcome by architects, engineers and builders, leading to high-cost design and construction work.
“As a result, for developers to justify these additional costs and complexities, a range of market conditions, from planning and approval timelines to construction and material costs, need to be aligned at the same time to justify the required expenditure against forecasted sales.”
Aqualand’s Blue at Lavendar Bay, at 61 Lavender Street, Milsons Point, Sydney, transformed an office tower into 20-storeys of 125 luxury apartments.
“The original office building on the site was tired and required significant investment to bring it back to life,” Aqualand project director Andrew Cooper says.
“When the residential market became far stronger, the sustainability benefits gained from keeping the embodied energy in the building became feasible.
“This new definition of apartment living created the perfect time to put residential in that location.”
Blue at Lavender Bay, completed in 2021, required relocating the building’s core and repositioning living spaces, according to PTW Architects Asia Pacific managing director Simon Parsons.
“Another obstacle in transforming an old commercial structure to a luxurious residential building lies in reimagining the facade while preserving the original structure,” Parsons says.
“For Blue at Lavender Bay, we entirely redesigned the facade.”
Another example is the REVY at Darling Island, Pyrmont, which was home to the Royal Edward Victualling Yard from 1912 and redeveloped in 2020 to become eight-storeys with 44 residences, including a penthouse.
For now, it seems, Australian developers are leaning more towards adaptive reuse than flexi-use. Perhaps it is just a matter of an idea whose time will come.
“Maybe down the line that will happen,” Temlett says.
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