Gerard Heumann
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Work-from-home nation

So much of that now empty office space in Israel's cities could be put to better use... like apartments!
Illustration of the Jerusalem Gateway project. (Dagan Advanced Visual Solutions, via The Times of Israel)
Illustration of the Jerusalem Gateway project. (Dagan Advanced Visual Solutions, via The Times of Israel)

Among the many changes the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated is the work-from-home trend, made possible by the digital communication revolution. The real estate market has been impacted globally. Over the last year, homes have become substitutes for a great many offices.

With almost half of Israel’s work force now able to work from home, businesses are rapidly downsizing their office space, leaving thousands upon thousands of square meters unoccupied. At the same time, the construction of a major office building complex is now in full swing at Jerusalem’s western entrance.

Needless to say, Israel is in dire need of many more apartments and the very last thing we need are vacant office building complexes, ghost towns. Conversion may be the only viable economic solution. That is, converting office space into apartments seems called for.

As we cannot know today if this trend will continue to expand or contract once the pandemic has hopefully passed, and given that the matter of converting office space into apartments is complex, the following comments should be seen as preliminary. But assuming that 50 percent of an office building’s space is to be converted, how might this be expedited? The main points:

By law, changes in land use require the preparation and approval of a Town Planning Scheme, an extremely time-consuming bureaucratic procedure that takes years. To speed up this process, our National Planning Administration would have to offer solutions, including amendments to our Planning and Building Law. Special planning and building committees would have to be set up to review and approve plans.

The location of office buildings selected to be partially converted is most important. Homes need nearby supermarkets, schools, public transportation, medical facilities, synagogues, and the like. Projects selected for conversion would be chosen on the basis of their environs or be given a mixed-use program.

Feasibility is also dependent on the existing office building’s plan dimensions. Apartments, situated on the building’s upper floors, whose rooms are generally smaller than offices, need natural light and air. Light wells help to solve this problem. Terraces would be designed within the existing office building’s plan envelope, Given the present trend, office space might be made less dense than today. Lower floors would include commercial frontage at street level, along with public facilities.

Mixed-use buildings enable living and working in the same building or close by. This means fewer and shorter trips by car. Parking by-laws would be adapted to this new situation.

Ideally, converting part of an office building into apartments and other uses would require separate circulation systems, separate entrances for example, as well as separate parking and service areas. The building’s exterior should articulate and express these different uses while, of course, unifying the whole.

Now is the time for our national and local government authorities responsible for planning and building to address this urgent issue, Israel’s schools of architecture contributing research and case-studies.

The situation we are facing is unprecedented. Failing to meet this important matter head on may lead to half-empty office buildings that present economic problems and may quickly deteriorate into slums to eventually be abandoned. We had better be prepared.

About the Author
Gerard Heumann is an architect and town planner in Jerusalem.
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