The coronavirus has transformed our city centres, and raised questions about how we use commercial buildings going forward. Alongside this, a report from the Mayor of London has highlighted that the UK’s capital has some of the world’s oldest building stock, and 80% of which will still be in use by 2050 – a situation no doubt mirrored in other British cities.
Office buildings, so long the hub of city centre life, now stand empty due to COVID-19 and working-from-home arrangements. In turn, many shops have shut their doors due to lack of footfall, turning once-thrumming urban areas into virtual ghost towns.
Yet as we begin to recover from the pandemic, many companies are keeping these new working arrangements intact, and looking to smaller offices and flexible attendance schedules as the way forward. This, in turn, raises a question – what do we do with these now-empty offices and shops?
It has been proposed that these potentially obsolete properties be demolished, alongside older building stock, to make room for new properties that could alleviate the UK’s chronic housing shortage. While this may seem a logical option, it may not be the most sustainable or practical one, especially when we take into account the Government’s 2050 ‘net zero’ carbon emission targets.
With the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors (RICS) estimating that 51 per cent of a residential property’s lifecycle carbon is emitted during construction, demolition may therefore not be viable. By contrast, retrofitting and repurposing existing commercial space into housing could be seen as a less expensive, more eco-friendly approach. This has already begun to happen, with thinktanks like the Social Market Foundation suggesting that 800,000 new homes could be created by adapting collapsed retail businesses, all of which will require heating.
Crucially, the Government has taken action to make it easier to convert vacant buildings into housing, adopting changes detailed in the ‘Planning For The Future’ consultation paper published by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government in July. As a result, specifiers and contractors may find that an interesting new market has opened up, adapting heating systems for shops and offices so they are suitable for residential purposes.
However, though legislation has provided this opportunity, it must be noted that transforming commercial buildings in this way comes with its own unique challenges. Because of this, effective solutions are also required if heating systems in these spaces are to be practically and sustainably transformed.
A key obstacle when turning retail and office space into housing is that they lack the extensive plumbing and heating network a home requires. As a result, extensive work may be required to make the building fit for continued habitation. However, this may be easier said than done when considering the steps required to convert these spaces.
Specifically, in order to create flats in areas not originally designed with this purpose in mind, a number of stud walls need to be raised designating individual apartments. As a result, specifiers and contractors may struggle to fit traditional copper pipework, which, due to its rigidity, may not be well-suited to the adjusting spatial situation. Because piping may need to be put into awkward, confined spaces, this flexibility can increase installation time and costs.
Advances in polymer-based flexible piping solutions that can bend mean challenges associated with retrofitting these spaces can be negated. Systems such as Rehau MLCP pipe RAUTITAN stabil, for example, provide the adaptability required in a retrofitting conversion project, while being durable and remaining easy-to-install in both heating and plumbing applications.
As such, it is suitable for radiator connections on projects of this nature, as it can be used for installations through the floor, skirting board, or wall, depending on what is required. The fact it is also available with space-saving stainless steel heating pipe manifolds also makes it a solution well-suited to compact areas.
This practicality extends to commercial premises with high ceilings, where developers may look to utilise available space by installing underfloor or ceiling heating systems to warm prospective flats below or above. The system’s status as a universal pipework solution means it is applicable as a single solution to a wide variety of applications, regardless of the heating or plumbing system being installed on a retrofit project.
In conclusion, as demand for office space falls and the need for housing constantly rises, it is clear that there will be a growing shift to replace commercial properties with residential ones. As sustainability increasingly becomes a country-wide necessity, the market for retrofitting these premises with heating systems appropriate for housing will therefore expand. Consequently, it is vital specifiers and contractors select flexible, practical and adaptable solutions best-suited to what will likely become the new normal.