An investigation into the adaptive re-use of commercial buildings in satisfying the demand for residential in the central business district of Cape Town, South Africa, an emerging market

Master Thesis


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University of Cape Town

The built environment contributes 40% to total global greenhouse gas emissions and 87% of the buildings we will have in 2050 are already built (Wilkinson & Remoy, 2015). If predicted climate changes are correct we need to adapt existing stock sustainably. Reuse is an inherently sustainable option, which reduces the amount of waste going to landfill. Inevitably, settlements and areas undergo change, whereby land uses become obsolete and buildings vacant. At this stage, the options are either to demolish or to convert to another use. In central business districts (CBDs) outside of South Africa, there are many examples of office to residential conversion. It is expected that Cape Town CBD will take the learnings from this international market and the adaptive reuse of Cape Town’s existing buildings will be explored in greater depth. Globally there is a movement of people towards centralised living locations due to the increased congestion of transport networks to cities and the need for people to be close to the services that cities offer. This movement will only become exaggerated in time as the urbanisation of Africa continues at an increasing rate. The ability to sustainably reuse existing commercial structures thus becomes a pertinent topic in providing an efficient solution to satisfy the housing demand. Some 9000m2 of office space is currently earmarked for residential conversion in Cape Town as demand for central residential property grows and a low interest rate economic environment creates good financial conditions for developers. Coupled with this, is a stock of ageing offices and a population projected to increase by 15% by 2031 requiring approximately 30,000 new housing options across the Cape metropolitan area. With the low projected economic growth rate of South Africa, the Cape Town office market is expected to remain relatively stagnant in 2017, 2018 and 2019 - so the macro economic conditions for residential conversion are better than ever. Based on the above mentioned, this research aimed at answering the questions: (a) which drivers encourage residential conversions in Cape Town, and, (b) what are the barriers for successful reuse of existing commercial buildings. This research investigated the nature and extent of commercial conversions experienced in other global cities (London, Sydney and New York) so as to establish an understanding of how Cape Town can best adapt, as well as the drivers and barriers to successful conversion of existing structures in a CBD. Through an extensive literature study, the research identifies the key lessons from international residential conversion projects. Subsequently, interviews were held with local property experts in the Cape Town market. This research explored the potential of delivering sustainability to the Cape Town CBD through the reuse of commercial buildings. The mix of these various forms of research allowed key themes to emerge and for these themes to be exploded so as to establish a view on whether conversion projects are here to stay. The research indicates that conversion projects within the CBD area of cities are only going to become more frequent as the financial feasibility of these conversion projects improves. This, together with an ever growing wealth of knowledge amongst developers and investors about conversion projects encourages the provision of significantly more residential units in the central city. This increase in the central city population is expected to have many positive benefits for the city on a social, cultural and economic level. It is for these benefits that Public organisations are now slowly putting their weight behind supporting the adaptation of vacant and problem commercial buildings. This proactive focus on diminishing the number of obsolete buildings in prime locations has becoming a key trait of a successful CBD. This research has therefore highlighted the real role that CBDs should play and how the physical environment that forms the CBD plays such an integral role in the formulating the culture of a city. Cities should be exciting central places where people can interact safely, that supports the sharing of ideas, and nurtures the cultural fabric that gives a city its soul.