Scores of empty office buildings across Canberra could be repurposed as aged care facilities or public housing, but architects say government incentives are needed to inspire more take-up of the costly projects.
Architects behind some of Canberra's well-known adaptive reuse projects say it is an extremely expensive exercise, but it's the most sustainable option and could be used to support cohorts who may otherwise end up on the "fringes" of the city.
AMC Architecture founding director Alastair MacCallum, who also chairs the ACT Property Council's social sustainability committee, has been a long-term advocate for the ACT government to implement planning incentives to encourage adaptive reuse.
He said repurposing existing buildings was far more environmentally friendly, and faster, than creating a new one, but it came at a price.
Mr MacCallam said by waiving a lease variation charge, and allowing additional storeys and balconies to be built outside of the existing footprint, builders and developers would be more eager to take up those projects.
Mr Macallum argued high-rise offices were perfect to be adapted for Canberra's vulnerable populations because they are typically in town centres, close to transport and employment opportunities.
"Let's say an office building accommodates 100 apartments, 20 of those could be for social housing salt-and-peppered across the development," he said.
Lovett Tower is the latest reuse project, with plans to turn the former government office building which has been empty for five years, into student accommodation and serviced apartments.
The former Department of Social Services building in Greenway has transformed into a retirement village.
Gray Puksand managing partner Kevin Miles said empty government office buildings had potential to thrive as aged care residences.
"Existing commercial buildings have really good bones," he said.
"There's no need to go and knock them down to rebuild a new facility."
The former Department of Social Services complex was redeveloped into more than 350 apartments by Cromwell Property Group in 2019.
Mr Miles said the separate buildings and two wings already incorporated in the design made it easier to adapt to residential.
High-rise office buildings in the heart of the city were also ripe to be revived for older Canberrans, he said.
Apartments for retirees would be best suited on the top levels while lower levels could be adapted for care facilities.
"Canberra is perfect for this model given the high number of old government buildings," he said.
"Given the ageing of our population, and location of some underutilised buildings, it makes sense to give them new life with a seniors' focus.
"We need to be looking at environmentally sustainable options for creating new aged care buildings that can retain the embodied energy of existing assets and remove the assumption that new builds in the sector are the only option."
Sustainable Building Minister Rebecca Vassarotti said there was more to be done and hoped the planning reform currently under way would help boost adaptive reuse projects.
"This is a really good way about how we can preserve buildings that are really important to us, but actually re-imagine how they might be used," she said.
"Part of what the planning review is really looking it [is the] system that is very rules-based and not outcomes based.
"It leads people down a path of doing something that's easy rather than thinking more broadly."
Planning Minister Mick Gentleman said the government was "looking towards a system that extends the lifespan of our existing buildings where possible and reinvents key buildings".
As part of the COVID-19 recovery to boost construction, the government reduced the lease variation charge, a tactic previously implemented in 2012 to encourage reuse.
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