Architect says office buildings abandoned during the pandemic could become ’residential towers of the future’

Norman Foster has called for a relaxation of rules governing the use of commercial buildings to allow more offices to be repurposed as housing in post-pandemic cities.

Laying out his vision for how urban centres will look in the post-covid world, the Foster & Partners founder said that office buildings abandoned by home workers could become the “residential tower[s] of the future”.

Norman Foster

In the UK the use of buildings is governmed by the use class system, while in Europe it is more commonly controlled by the zoning of areas for different uses.

The peer told the Financial Times: “If you can relax about zoning, then perhaps the department store which is zoned as retail can be rezoned for leisure, as a cinema, or for industry.” 

Foster (pictured) was speaking ahead of a speech to the virtual Urban Land Institute (ULI) Europe Conference in which he argued that the pandemic could be a catalyst for radical change in the world’s cities, making them greener, quieter and safer places to live.

The government last year introduced a new town centre use class - Class E - that already allows most commercial uses to switch to other commercial uses without planning permission.

However, Foster said that more flexible zoning rules could include the ability to create self-sufficient neighbourhoods where clean industries “coexist alongside culture, arts, living, working, galleries, cafes and restaurants”. 

“Zoning needs to be flexible to deliver the new living and working environments that younger generations are demanding,” he added.

The comments fly in the face of criticism expressed by many architects towards the government’s reform of use classes, and particularly the government’s plans to expand permitted development rights as part of its new planning reforms.

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In a consultation launched in December, the government proposed allowing buildings in the newly created Class E use class - which includes the vast majority of commercial buildings in England - to be converted into housing without planning permission.

The proposed right would be a radical expansion of existing conversion rights, and would extend to many more building types while removing the tight size limits imposed on the existing rights. Critics say the right will undermine the viability of many high streets and town centres by breaking up shop frontages and clusters of commercial uses with unplanned residential.

Foster also called on the public sector to rezone urban centres in response to changing work patterns, arguing that cities have historically bounced back “stronger and better” after a major crisis.

Citing London after the Great Fire of 1666, Lisbon after the 1755 earthquake and tsunami and cities in the USA after the Great Depression, he said: “These crises all created positive, progressive change,” adding: “The Great Depression created some of the most enduring and noble infrastructure, alongside some of the most iconic buildings.”

Examples given by Foster of potential technological leaps forward include hydroponics, allowing food to be grown closer to where it is eaten, a new wave of space exploration, and container-sized nuclear batteries which he said could power “an entire community or a cluster of skyscrapers”.

He added: “Notwithstanding the proliferation and the lowering costs of solar and renewables, nuclear is the only one that can deliver that energy cleanly.”