Maximizing Dilapidated Infrastructure: The Potential of Repurposing Abandoned Buildings into Social Housing

As the demand for affordable housing grows and the availability of low-cost properties diminishes, stakeholders in housing must become more innovative in their approach to social housing development. One opportunity lies in restoring and repurposing abandoned buildings. While building new houses remains the primary strategy for Housing Authorities and Associations, rehabilitating derelict buildings can be a more economical option. This approach not only maximizes the use of dilapidating infrastructure but also provides an economic opportunity to increase affordable housing within the city. Although rehabilitating derelict residential buildings may seem like an obvious solution, it becomes even more crucial when considering abandoned commercial, institutional, or historical buildings for social housing.

In 2021, Habitat for Humanity conducted a study titled ‘Repurposing Empty Spaces to Prevent Homelessness in Mainland Europe’. Its aim was to explore the possibility and availability of using socially owned vacant spaces to address housing shortages. The United Kingdom was chosen as a pilot study area, where the research found that approximately 7,000 commercial and business premises across England, Scotland, and Wales, currently owned by local authorities, have been vacant for over 12 months. The study estimated that these spaces could potentially create over 16,000 residential units by converting vacant office spaces, and 3,500 units by converting empty retail spaces.

The study highlighted the vast availability of derelict commercial and housing buildings that are suitable for housing conversion. These properties are primarily owned by local authorities, reminding the government of its role in subsidizing affordable housing and decreasing the role of private developers in housing development. These properties are also conveniently located within cities and towns and are connected to essential amenities factored into the cost of housing, such as transportation, services, and social amenities. Their lack of use and adaptable spatial structures allow for easy rehabilitation and conversion into homes.

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However, the most successful examples of this principle, such as the repurposed boiler house from an old vinyl factory in Hayes, London, or a converted boiler house in Hackney into new council housing, seem to favor commercial and industrial buildings. This is due to their adaptable spatial structure and the public’s lesser sentimental attachment to these buildings. Institutional and historical buildings present a greater challenge.

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In a Guardian article about office buildings in Harlow, Essex converted into housing, the living experience was likened to an “open-air prison.” The spaces were described as tiny, and the pre-cast concrete structure with large, repetitive sheets of glass lacked a domestic feel. On one hand, the potential to create an estimated 65,000 affordable flats from derelict office buildings shows how this process can maximize dilapidated infrastructure. On the other hand, it calls for more thoughtful planning and community collaboration to create suitable domestic spaces within them.

Historic or iconic buildings, which hold sentimental value for their communities, often face resistance when repurposing is proposed and require innovative design solutions. For example, the architecture firm Tectône transformed an old chapel into a thrift shop and social housing in Charenton-Le-Pont, France. The chapel was cherished by the local community. By collaborating with them, the architects were able to preserve the chapel’s character while adding an extension to the building to house the thrift store and social housing.

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Repurposing abandoned buildings is therefore a collaborative effort that requires the involvement of the entire community. The study by Habitat for Humanity further emphasizes the importance of this collaboration in the conversion process. It’s recommended to engage with private partners and stakeholders, as it most likely offers a sustainable path for acquiring property for conversion into accommodation. This engagement also allows access to a wider network of investors, potential partners, and funding sources.

Involving various stakeholders from the onset of development encourages a diversity of ideas and a shared sense of ownership over the structure. Like cooperative housing, this approach also offers tenants the chance to rehabilitate the structure affordably as a cooperative while the government provides legal support for their tenancy. This not only gives abandoned buildings a new lease of life but also instills a sense of ownership and commitment in tenants. This helps to maintain the structure for longer periods.

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The concept of repurposing abandoned buildings extends beyond the United Kingdom or Europe to many countries in the Global South. Cities are facing a housing crisis due to top-down urban development by the government, leaving numerous structures abandoned and uninhabited. One example is Lagos, Nigeria.

Lagos, with an estimated population of 16 million people spread over an area of 1,171 km², suffers from a housing deficit of over 3 million units. However, according to The Guardian in 2019, the former capital city has many abandoned institutional and governmental buildings. These amount to 60 buildings in the central business district, ranging from 5 to 20 floors with an average of 6000m2 per floor. They have the potential to reduce the city’s housing deficit by 10%.

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Many of these structures were once governmental buildings with important political functions and public significance. But since the capital’s relocation, they have lost their relevance and now seek new purposes. Research from Habitat for Humanity shows that these buildings, owned by the government, could provide affordable social housing, fulfilling the government’s responsibility to the public. Cities like Accra, Dakar, and Rio de Janeiro face similar situations. Developing social housing within these structures gives new life to deteriorating buildings, fostering new communities and social foundations within the city.

This article is part of the ArchDaily Topics: Doing More With Less. Every month we explore a topic in-depth through articles, interviews, news, and architecture projects. We invite you to learn more about our ArchDaily Topics. And, as always, at ArchDaily we welcome the contributions of our readers; if you want to submit an article or project, contact us.

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