To save downtowns, we need to embrace windowless bedrooms
Meet the floor plan of the future
Bobby Fijan, a real estate developer who likes to tweet about floor plans, recently offered this as an example of how a contemporary downtown office building could be converted into apartments. It’s a downright odd space: a 2,500 square foot 4br/5ba unit whose bedrooms don’t have any windows. Or, as Fijan says, if you want to get cute about the legal situation, you could say it’s a studio with a den, a nursery, and two offices. Really, though, it’s a large apartment with windowless bedrooms.
This is probably not many people’s first choice of dwelling type.
On the other hand, some people might find it appealing. For an unusually light-sensitive person, this layout might actually be nice. Or consider the many contemporary families who want a lot of square footage, which in practical terms normally means moving to the suburbs — at least some of those families would probably prefer windowless bedrooms to leaving the city.
Or maybe four younger friends who like to throw parties would enjoy living here. Despite the windowless bedrooms, it’s a very cool main living space with great circulation and dramatic views.
The unit has a weird floor plan not because converting office buildings to apartments is legitimately hard — the buildings are just shaped wrong. And yet, remote work has generated a structural reduction in demand for office space and a structural increase in demand for residential square footage, leaving us with a scarcity of housing and a surplus of office space. Converting the latter to the former could help stabilize city center tax bases, relieve some of the pressure on the existing housing stock, and help us build a more prosperous future. But to get there, cities are going to need to embrace some weird-looking floor plans.
The housing scarcity situation is dire
Thanks to remote work, a lot of white-collar professionals had the opportunity to relocate from very expensive cities and suburbs to much cheaper communities on the fringes of major metro areas, both getting a bigger home and saving money.
The issue is that if a whole bunch of people try all at once to move from the Upper West Side to Scranton, you get this.
In other words, one family making the transition to remote work is a windfall. But half the white-collar workforce doing it simultaneously is awkward from a supply perspective.
And what makes it worse is that while remote work gives residents of the priciest markets a shot at some savings, it increases the total demand for housing. Let’s say you live in a very affordable city like Greater San Antonio. With your new, more flexible schedule, you only need to come to the office two days a week. That’s convenient and saves you time — and to an extent, money — on commutes, but now that you and your wife are both spending more time working from home, you want to move to a larger house with home office space.
Or say you’re a young person living in a big city with roommates who want to continue living in a big city for lifestyle amenity reasons rather than for working. Well, with everyone suddenly home all the time, sharing a 3br row house with two friends feels a bit cramped. You upgrade to your one 1br apartment, and your former roommates don’t fill the third bedroom, deciding to use it as office space instead.
My dad is a novelist and a screenwriter, so he’s been remote working his whole life. That’s one reason he bought a summer house in Maine a long time ago. A second home is an expensive proposition for anyone, but it’s also an extremely wasteful proposition for a typical person who couldn’t conceivably spend that much time away from home regardless of money because most people have to go to work. But my dad could post up in Maine all summer, working away by the seashore in nice surroundings. Now that the number of people who can do that has exploded, demand for houses in coastal Maine has gone up like a rocket ship.
It’s also a great time to travel a lot. If you’re a dual-income, no-kids couple who likes to visit new places, you can now easily go digital nomad — live in Chicago for two months in late spring/early summer, taking in the city’s attractions at a relaxed pace while doing your job, then spend peak summer near a beach and winter someplace warm. The best way to do that kind is to use Airbnb to rent houses with kitchens and plenty of space.
All of which is to say that while you see a clear shift in relative demand (less San Francisco and Seattle, more Tampa and Scranton), the more economically significant fact is that overall demand is way up. Or rather, residential demand is way up, and office demand is way down.
Office norms are hard to rebuild
So far, I think city governments are being a bit lackadaisical in thinking about the future of their downtowns, mostly engaging in wishful thinking about a future “return to office” scenario.
You can imagine a world where the Delta variant never happened, and the vaccine rollout led to a very rapid “normalize everything” push that jolted most companies back to the pre-Covid norm. But that’s not what happened. Instead, we got a long, sluggish rebound that fundamentally reshaped norms, and I think it’s hard to come back from that.
Back before the pandemic, for example, Vox Media was a very remote-oriented company. Most of Vox.com’s staff lived in New York or D.C., but we had several people in Ohio, Ezra Klein in San Francisco, Dave Roberts in Seattle, and some of the NYC-based staff reported to D.C.-based managers and vice versa. Most of all, if for some reason you didn’t want to come in on any given day, that was fine. And that was a godsend. I remember a few days one January when DCPS was closed and Kate had a bad flu, so I drove our kid up to this place in Chevy Chase that combined an indoor playground for kids with coffee and wifi for parents. I banged out a couple of columns up there thanks to Slack, email, Zoom, and the other features of modern technology.
This is just to say that I really valued Vox’s remote-friendly culture, even though I personally had zero interest in working remotely.
I personally believe that it’s much easier to do political journalism when you’re physically present in Washington, D.C.
I enjoy hanging out in an office full of journalists.
My preference is to live in a walkable urban neighborhood so commuting isn’t burdensome.
The fact is that even if you’re not a remote worker, being in an organization that has the technologies in place for remote collaboration is helpful.
But the punchline to all of this is that if you went into Vox’s office on any given pre-pandemic day, it would be so lively and full of people that we actually struggled to accommodate the demand for desk space. I’m told by friends who work there that this has really changed post-Covid. Some people left town to go full-time remote, but more to the point, once the office-going norm broke, the benefits of going to the office declined. Part of the point of the office is the energy and serendipity… if other people aren’t there, why should you be?
This is a fundamental problem for calls to return to the office. Remote work tools are very useful once everyone learns how to use them, and that’s true even if you’re not a remote worker. And getting everyone into the office once the habit is broken almost certainly requires stricter attendance policies than anyone had pre-pandemic. That’s a step companies are going to be very reluctant to take.
“No, you can’t do the one-on-one over Zoom tomorrow and work remotely when your kid is home sick from school because we’re worried about a slippery slope.” A manager making that call would (rightly) face a backlash, but the slope really does slip! From sick kid to kid whose school is just randomly closed to I need to stay home to wait for the plumber to the pre-pandemic Vox norm where it was fine not to show up to the office, at which point why not just let people work remotely?
Empty downtowns aren’t great
None of this is to say that there will be zero demand for office space in the future.
To take an extreme case, the Biden White House was more Covid-cautious on both a personal and policy level than most Americans but has also been pretty aggressive at establishing a norm of in-person work at the Oval Office and the West Wing. My friends who work on Capitol Hill continue to literally work on Capitol Hill when Congress is in session with much more flexibility during recesses, which is exactly how they’ve always done it. We have recorded Bad Takes episodes remotely (because the flexibility is good), but we try to do it in person when feasible because we get better energy that way. To the best of my knowledge, the TV and radio industries have worked that way forever and ever — remote technology is powerful enough that they don’t want to disavow it, but they try for in-person when you can.
A lot of law firms are moving to a schedule of two to three in-office days and two to three flex days, with the idea being to pack the meetings into the in-office days and then do whatever the rest of the time.
I imagine some businesses that do a lot of client-facing work will go all-in on remote as a way to serve clients around the country or the world. Other businesses that do a lot of client-facing work will be there to serve people for whom the human instinct to want a firm handshake and a good look in the eye remains strong.
But America’s current half-empty office districts are unsettling. The thing about a downtown is that you expect it to be a big hub of activity with not just office buildings but shops and restaurants. A proper downtown, even if it’s a really small one, should be a nice, lively place to spend time. I spent a couple of days in downtown Norfolk, Virginia years ago for a conference and went to the MacArthur Memorial and the Hampton Roads Naval Museum, walked a nice river trail, and had both casual and formal meals. I don’t think anyone is going to claim that downtown Norfolk is the most exciting place in the world, but it’s a good spot for a hotel or an office building or a convention center.
More recently, though, I went to a nice conference in Denver, and downtown Denver — just like downtown Washington, D.C. — is kind of creepy these days. With all the office buildings half-empty at midweek and emptier than that on Mondays and Fridays, many of the downtown retail establishments have closed. The surge in housing demand has led to soaring prices and increased homelessness, giving a disorderly (at best) vibe to underpopulated streets.
And that’s bad for everyone. An empty downtown is a less pleasant downtown, and a less pleasant downtown is one where people are less likely to want downtown office space. Lack of demand for downtown office space keeps the downtown empty and further contributes to excess housing demand. What we need is for the office district to shrink rather than empty out. If D.C.’s central business district shrunk to the size of Denver’s, it would be crowded and full of good downtown vibes. Alternatively, we need to fill it with activity that isn’t coming from office buildings. And realistically, that means weird floor plans.
To encourage, first allow
I’m not telling city officials anything they don’t already know about the merits of office-to-residential conversions as a means to help urban cores address economic pressures.
Here in D.C., for example, the city government is launching a study to determine which kind of financial incentives would be most efficacious in encouraging these conversions. At the same time, the D.C. building code makes it illegal to market a room as a bedroom if it doesn’t have a window. So that spacious four-bedroom floor plan is a no-go. There are plenty of cases I’m familiar with of people using a “den” or even a “walk-in closet” as a bedroom, and for the most part there’s no victim to report the code violation — you just can’t call it a bedroom in a real estate listing.
But for a major downtown redevelopment project, I don’t think that kind of wink-wink strategy would work. Developers are going to want to market the units to families and groups of roommates. There are going to be significant tax incentives involved that supportive politicians are going to want to claim credit for, and that will attract local media scrutiny. To succeed, a conversion project needs to be above board.
And realistically, that means it needs to account for the reality that most office buildings have a lot of interior space relative to their surface area. That’s especially true in D.C., where the Height of Buildings Act makes it wildly uneconomical to build anything other than a perfect cuboid rectangle. It’s entirely possible that if you legalize windowless bedrooms, nobody will believe there’s a market for them and none will be built. In that case, no harm. But cities that are looking to address the supply/demand imbalance need to at least try to legalize the kind of floor plans that can be built at a low cost.