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Empty workspaces become lived in communities

Eleanor Young

The old problem of too few homes has been joined by too many offices. Benjamin Holland, Olivia Dolan and Katie Williams address both in their Rethink 2025 building scale winner

Empty office floors or a brighter future with homes and gardens colonising existing structures?
Empty office floors or a brighter future with homes and gardens colonising existing structures? Credit: Benjamin Holland, Olivia Dolan and Katie Williams

One of the remarkable things about the coronavirus crisis has been the rapid solution of apparently impossible problems – the creation of the Nightingale hospitals for instance, when other promised hospitals had rarely been delivered, and the beds provided for the homeless who, over the last four years, have increased in number.

The entry Get Everyone In – from three students at the University of Liverpool and UWE, two now working in practice with ShedKM and Sheppard Robson – spells out the simple facts of the housing of homeless people; and how on 27 March, just hours before the weekend began, the government announced that councils should be ‘urgently procuring accommodation for people on the streets’ – without offering any extra direct funding to cash strapped services. 

At the same time we have seen the stay at home interdict prove that many workers can fulfil their daily office tasks from the back bedroom. These new ways of working are now being predicted to leave many office buildings redundant. 

This entry marries these two issues by making homes in re-used and repurposed empty office spaces.  In a clever cartoon kicking off the entry, prime minister Boris Johnson is seen pledging to get everyone in and bring the homeless off the streets during the pandemic, a promise that has run into the sand.

The proposed reworking of an office tower sees communal health facilities including ­decontamination on ground level and brings nature into the mix with sky gardens at mid level – as well as enabling residents to grow their own food in vertical gardens. For the upper levels, drawings show how the deep plan office floor could be used simply for hostel-style bedrooms around the perimeter with communal spaces in the centre. One floor is left for some office workers and consideration of different access through a split core. 

‘The proposal neatly ties together issues of homelessness and empty units. It is a solution that made sense,’ said Sarah Castle. ‘It is really well presented and deals with sustainability and farming as well as communal life.’

Axonometric of a repurposed office building with rooms for the homeless on the top floor.
Axonometric of a repurposed office building with rooms for the homeless on the top floor. Credit: Benjamin Holland, Olivia Dolan and Katie Williams

The entry text spells out the advantages of this investment in social infrastructure: ‘With the government using funds to lease redundant floors, instead of investing in short term fixes, we can reduce the rent overheads of big businesses who have benefit hard by the pandemic and have a reduced need for their office space.’

This optimistic and pragmatic proposal quotes Arundhati Roy on the pandemic: ‘We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world.’

This is both a manifesto and a design and one from which government, local authorities and commercial landlords could take lessons. 

See more ideas for Rethink 2025

See our newly published RETHINK Design Guide: Architecture for a post-pandemic world book


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