Jane Embury, director, looks at a bold strategy in London
The future of our towns and cities is of vital importance as we emerge into a new normal.
They are the country’s lifeblood, responsible for retail commerce and jobs.
Not only that but urban vibrancy is about leisure: bars, restaurants, coffee shops, museums and galleries.
Essentially, that vibrancy depends on people. Take people away from our towns and cities and you take away their purpose.
That’s why we’ve said that we must develop long-term strategies to repurpose our urban areas.
Simply, it’s no good thinking that we’ll return to the old normal. Changes in business practice that would maybe have taken many years have happened in one year.
Chiefly that’s been, and will be, the shift from office-based to home-based work. While many will return to their offices, the future of office work no longer means having to work in an office.
We recently highlighted the example of Gleeds, the property and construction consultancy. It intends to cut back the number of desks in its offices by as much as 40%. Like many other companies, they will adopt a hybrid model, where staff will work only some of the time from the office.
Among others are, for example, BP, whose staff will now work from home for two days a week. In turn, that poses bigger questions about the need for new office space, and what to do with redundant offices.
The Chartered Institute of Building (CIOB) has already warned about government plans to simplify the process of turning commercial premises homes.
Their letter to the Prime Minister is jointly signed by the CIOB, the Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI), Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA), and Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS).
We agree, of course, that there must be a robust process to ensure that proposals for any change of use are fully examined. But the fact remains that, if office space is to become redundant, something must be done with it.
City of London
For us, the best way is to look at redundant office space as an asset to repurpose our urban areas.
That’s why we welcome proposals from The City of London. They’re planning to convert empty offices into housing in a bid to revive the area.
The City of London Corporation intends to create at least 1,500 new homes by 2030.
It may not seem like many, but the City only now has about 7,850 housing units. Most of them are concentrated in estates that were built in the 1960s.
For anyone familiar with the City of London, come nightfall and it’s an area that becomes a ghost town. Vibrant during the day, London’s financial powerhouse has few people living within its Square Mile.
With that daytime vibrancy set to be eroded by remote working, bringing people back into the City to live seems a good idea.
As part of a recovery strategy, the City of London Corporation has set out how it will “rise to the challenge of adapting to the new normal that emerges after the pandemic.”
Its plans include both new build and the refurbishment of old buildings to create new homes.
The Corporation also plans to include at least 35% affordable housing. It has “an ambition to deliver higher levels of affordable housing where this is viable.”
It’s a realistic plan, born of necessity, as companies respond to the evolving trends towards hybrid and flexible working.
The Corporation says that the City must evolve. That means providing an ecosystem that remains attractive to workers, visitors, learners and residents.
Converting redundant offices into housing will inevitably be a complex process, not least in internal reconfiguration.
It will also be an issue of building and fire safety, with a whole new set of regulations to ensure the safety of residents.
The government has already passed a Building Safety Bill. It’s something we’ve welcomed, with reservations.
This introduces the role of duty holder. That person will have a legal responsibility to look at all aspects of safety.
Creating new homes seems a sensible response to an inevitable trend away from the office.
Bringing people into cities will also help to revitalise urban economies. The future of our high streets is also something we’ve drawn attention to.
Giving up to 120 minutes of integrity and insulation, they trap fire in a discrete area, protect escape routes and give firefighters easier access.
Most recently, we’ve also introduced a dual-directional system to provide fire protection on both sides of the glass.
Fire-protective systems generally only provide that protection from high risk to low risk areas but, as we know, fire can and does occur on either side.
The future of our towns and cities may no longer just be about business and commerce. They may also become places for more of us of live.
Our systems will help make that happen.