With housing prices still sky high, government officials are looking everywhere for land to fulfil the demand for affordable housing – everywhere, that is, except for old industrial areas.
At the end of 2012, Hong Kong had about 17.1 million square metres of flatted factory space. Although only 5 per cent of this was officially vacant, much of it is underutilised or used for non-industrial purposes such as back offices, storage spaces, and artists’ studios. Overseas, disused factory buildings have been converted into homes, reducing construction waste and revitalising existing parts of the city so that green areas can be preserved.
However, despite a policy introduced in 2009 to waive land use conversion premiums for the adaptive reuse of old industrial buildings, very few have been converted into residences. In the last four years, the Lands Department approved just 57 conversion applications, with most being transformed into offices, restaurants, shopping centres, or hotels.
Officials have stated that residential conversion is much more challenging due to the more stringent building regulations for natural lighting and ventilation in residences. Fulfilling them might require the expensive demolition of significant portions of the building.
The problem is basically one of geometry. The buildings regulations have very specific window requirements for residential units. Windows must have an unobstructed view for a certain distance, all kitchens and bathrooms must have windows, and no part of a room can be located more than nine metres from a window. This explains why practically all residential towers built since the 1970s are relatively narrow, and either cruciform, H, or Y-shaped.
In contrast, flatted factory buildings are bulky, rectangular blocks. A typical factory floor-plan consists of deep individual units located on either side of a central corridor, with windows located only on one side. Even if these were converted into openplan apartments, there would be areas farther than nine metres from a window.
While the regulations were put in place for good reason, they are extremely rigid and outdated. Many office buildings would fail the residential window requirement, but if it is safe for people to work in such buildings, why would it be unsafe to live in them?
Likewise, the requirement for windows in bathrooms and kitchens was created at a time when the vast majority of homes used gas water heaters and stoves, and gas leaks were a semi-regular occurrence. With modern water heaters, electric hot plates, and mechanical ventilation systems, windows are no longer as necessary.
Overseas experience has shown that industrial to residential conversion can be done safely and that residences can even co-exist alongside light industrial activities. Industrial loft apartments are even considered highly desirable in cities such as New York and London. A more flexible set of regulations which evaluates buildings on the basis of performance rather than adherence to prescriptive requirements would go a long way towards facilitating building conversions.
The real obstacles to the conversion of industrial buildings are not safety and hygiene, but bureaucratic inflexibility and official inertia.