These buildings used to be EPA offices, but now they're apartments. Image by Eric Taylor, EricTaylorPhoto.com used with permission.

It's no secret that throughout the region, it's becoming harder and harder to find housing that's affordable. One out-of-the-box solution to the problem is to turn old office and commercial spaces into housing.

As development booms, rents in existing multi-family housing stock continue to rise. Those who can't afford them often wind up farther away from  transportation and employment opportunities. And while policies like inclusionary zoning have made some headway in providing incentives for building housing that's affordable, the demand for these units is likely to remain far ahead of the supply.

There is, however, another phenomenon that's happening as a result of thriving regional core: a number of older commercial buildings, where office development isn't quite as desirable, are going unused. These properties, though not downtown, are still within walking distance of amenities and transportation. These properties are also often the same cost, if not lower, than existing deteriorated multi-family properties.

Large, empty commercial buildings present ready opportunities to build mixed-income housing. And in fact, my firm, Wiencek + Associates Architects + Planners (W+A), has worked with several forward-thinking development teams to do so. Let’s look at two examples:

One former office building in Bethesda was converted into housing for the homeless

In 2008, the Montgomery County Coalition for the Homeless (MCCH) took advantage of recent legislation that allowed it to easily purchase and repurpose a former office building on Cordell Avenue in Bethesda. The building, which also had ground floor retail, was vacant, and many would call it an eyesore.

MCCH’s goal was to provide supportive housing for the homeless (providing housing and support services to homeless individuals and having them pay 30% of their income) in downtown Bethesda. This is typically unachievable in a downtown area, but by renovating this property the agency was able to do so— a coup for the county and its residents. Today, the building is called Cordell Place.

Cordell Place, before and after. "Before" image by Wiencek + Associates Architects + Planners, "After" by EricTaylorPhoto.com.

The building footprint was narrow and backed against a larger existing structure, making it unlikely that it would be redeveloped into more modern offices. But the layout translated extremely well to supportive housing needs, and punched windows bring sunlight into the units and the two end facades provide large community gathering and support space.

Also, the ground floor retail was revitalized and returned to its original retail use. All the while, as the building was gutted and 32 new very affordable units went in, almost no one in the neighborhood was aware of the significant change taking place because of extra efforts not to be disruptive.

The inside of one of Cordell Place's apartments. Image by EricTaylorPhoto.com used with permission.

Such a successful and significant victory for affordable housing would have been impossible if MCCH had had to buy vacant land and resort to new construction.

The old EPA headquarters became mixed-income housing

In 2010, another developer, Urban Atlantic (UA), hired W+A to redesign two two 12-story office towers previously owned by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The office buildings had developed sick building syndrome over time, and people who used them suffered from upper respiratory issues due to inoperable windows and a closed air conditioning system that spread germs and harmful compounds like formaldahyde.

These two buildings were in an ideal location, adjacent to two newly constructed office buildings and the Waterfront Metro station, as well as restaurants, amenities, a new Safeway, and the nearby Arena Stage. They were also within walking distance of the Nationals Stadium and the Maine Avenue waterfront. UA recognized that there was no need for more office space in this area, and that the over 350,000 square feet of space there could become apartments. 

The Lex, before and after. "Before" image by Wiencek + Associates Architects + Planners, "After" by EricTaylorPhoto.com.

To create what is now called The Lex at Waterfront Station, we gutted and repurposed both buildings, creating 535 new apartments with significant amenity space on the first and second floors. It's worth noting that we worked with the city on a Planned Unit Development, which allows for some zoning flexibility on things like height and density in exchange for providing public amenities.

Through inclusionary zoning, we were able to make 20% of the units in each building affordable to individuals making 60% of the Area Median Income, or $65,160 per year, creating 108 new affordable units in total. 

Converting these 110-foot wide office floor plates to residential use presented a challenge because of the zoning requirement to bring natural light into living spaces. Typical multi-family buildings are only 60 feet wide.

Unique solutions such as clerestory windows in the bedrooms and sliding "barn" pocket doors to bring natural light into the more recessed spaces of these “boxcar” units. Recent code changes also allowed for deep and narrow loft-like units, which are in much demand in the urban market.

These efficient plans allowed for more than double the originally-planned plan 235 units. And smaller unit sizes in efficiencies, many one bedroom, and double master two-bedroom suites allowed an even higher percentage of units to be affordable to the workforce market. 

However, these buildings do not look like the "affordable housing" that many picture. The exteriors were modernized, the oppressive, unsightly pink-colored precast concrete and smoked glass facades replaced with a cost-effective full-height glazing system that replicate the look of high-end curtain walls at a significantly reduced cost. The rooftops are accessible, with new pool houses, pools, and lounging spaces and provide some of the most spectacular views in the city. 

The inside of one of The Lex's apartments. Image by EricTaylorPhoto.com used with permission.

Opportunities for providing housing that's more affordable exist. Collaborating with developers like the Montgomery County Coalition for the Homeless and Urban Atlantic have shown us wonderful examples of how to create and maintain affordable, multi-family housing in the urban core, and are viable, repeatable models for commercial building repurposing.

We must all look for new and innovative solutions like these, before it’s too late. 

Michael Wiencek, FAIA, NCARB, LEED AP BD+C, is the president of the Washington, DC based Wiencek + Associates Architects + Planners. Over the past 30 years, his firm has designed over 78,000 units of housing. With a passion for social justice, his philosophy of “Design Empowering People” is the focus of all of his projects, bringing award-winning design to areas formerly marginalized communities.