Breathing new life into under-utilized buildings

The world's leading global cities may be sitting on top of the pile for now but they have a group of ambitious contenders challenging their dominance.

August 09, 2016

Take a walk through a busy city on a weekday afternoon and the number of spaces used only on a part-time basis starts to rack up.

From half-empty office blocks catering to an increasingly mobile workforce to car parking bays outside private homes, what’s there isn’t necessarily a waste of space, it’s a wasted opportunity to use the space in a more productive way.

Now, the sharing economy is looking to change that. Restaurants are the latest buildings looking to make more use of their space. In New York City, start-up Spacious is partnering with restaurants that are empty during the day to turn them into coworking spaces for freelancers, entrepreneurs and consultants looking for a different work environment.

They have the necessary infrastructure already in place – tables, coffee, good meeting facilities. Plus there are plenty of them with around 2,000 restaurants in Brooklyn and Manhattan which stay empty till 5 or 6 pm.

It’s an innovative concept but marketing a restaurant as a dual function space has some challenges. Geno Coradini, Executive Vice President of Retail Integrated Portfolio Services at JLL, says: “I’d love to stop in at a restaurant and work there since I travel a lot. I can see the benefit from a user perspective, but not from the brand or the restaurant side. I don’t see it helping, and it could even hurt the restaurant’s regular or potential customers. If you’re walking by, you’ll see lots of people inside, but lunch isn’t being served. So it could be confusing.”

It’s early days for the restaurant-turned-working space idea but it’s far from being the only type of underutilised real estate space to be taken over by creative start-ups and fed back into the sharing economy.

A logical progression

The growing trend is a result of early disruptors like Airbnb and Uber, says Alex Edds, UK Innovation Director at JLL. “We needed trailblazers to lead the way. The property industry is not known for its speed of innovation, and many now realise that, and see the opportunities to be had.”

Since Airbnb exploded onto the scene in 2008, plenty of offshoots have appeared, allowing owners of commercial and residential properties to make money from otherwise empty spaces.

Startups like OfficeRiders in France or Vrumi and Spacehop in the UK, enable living spaces in private homes to be used as fitness studios, office space for therapists or masseuses, a venue for workshops or simply a quiet place to get some work done.

Storage is another area ripe for the sharing economy. Start-up Roost allows people to locate and rent an attic, basement, garage or even a closet in someone’s home. It also matches drivers in its parking-scarce cities with indoor and outdoor parking spaces that are privately owned, just as start-up ParqExrecently began doing in Chicago and JustPark in Europe.

Companies are getting in on the act too, renting out desk space which can be underused for as much as 60 percent of the working day on a short-term basis to subcontractors or partners. In India, Awfis is offering upvacant office space in its big cities to start-ups and larger companies in need of affordable ‘plug n play’ offices or meeting rooms with the necessary infrastructure. And there’s a growing market for retailers. Companies like Go Vacant, The Storefront, PopUp Angels and Pop Up Now are part of the boutique marketplace that helps businesses around the world find an empty space for their pop up shop or event.

It’s changing the way we think about our built environment. As Edds points out: “If we use space more efficiently, by sharing our spaces, we’ll need less space overall – which potentially means less new construction and new developments.

“This goes slightly contrary to the way the real estate market works, and indeed is valued, so I think the sharing economy not only brings new opportunities for some, but it introduces some pretty fundamental questions for the status quo. Perhaps we need new business models to accompany this shared economy? It requires a different mindset and fresh ideas.”

Sharing is caring

The better use of space can have big implications for our cities, driving regeneration to boost the local economy. In San Antonio, Texas, for example, local start-up Space Cadet is trying to re-energize the city, particularly its downtown area, by connecting entrepreneurs looking for workspace with landlords with vacant units to activate the “dead space” of the many underutilised buildings, including nightclubs, bars and warehouses.

It’s not just about regenerating rundown areas, it’s also about thinking about how our urban environments can change to better meet the needs of the people who live in them – especially when designing and constructing the smart cities of the future.

“Smart cities are not just about technologies, they are about using space more efficiently, and the planning authorities need to catch up and change the way they zone urban areas so as to encourage the mixed use, and efficient use of space. We need this collaboration and coordination with the city planners as to what’s being built and why,” Edds says.

As attitudes towards how space in the built environment is used evolve, maybe underutilized real estate can become a thing of the past.