Industrial Rehab: creating a new space of opportunity?

As companies coming out of lockdown crave greater volumes, versatility and value in their office spaces, could industrial conversions provide the answer? A novel research study looks at the evidence

For decades, former industrial buildings have been repurposed for a variety of uses, from art galleries and studios to offices and homes. These usually take the form of the familiar brick warehouse. but more recently there has been an increase in the number of extra-large industrial buildings, including massive steel sheds, redundant railways buildings and factories being converted for use as workplaces.

The driver for this change is the character, volume and versatility afforded by these buildings as well as their value, as they are often located outside of the central business district, in areas that are undergoing urban renewal.

‘The ideal environment for an ecosystem of like-minded businesses of varying scales…’

Whilst many of these industrial building conversions are occupied by a single tenant, quite often as their HQ, the multi-tenanted examples are particularly interesting as they demonstrate how a large open space can provide the ideal environment for an ecosystem of like-minded businesses of varying scales.

In the current environment, and with so many of us thinking about how we will work post lockdown, volume, increased airspace per person and versatility are attractive offers. It will be interesting to see if there is a higher take-up of this kind of building.

Conducting research

Our Industrial Rehab study came about when the team at architects Hawkins Brown was working on large-scale industrial building conversions at very different stages. Whilst researching precedents for these projects we realised there was very little information available on this building typology.

Hawkins Brown joined forces with JLL, which brought its knowledge as property advisor on industrial rehab projects around the world. Our research helped us gain a better understanding of industrial rehab buildings and it also demonstrates the potential of converting large scale industrial buildings into contemporary workplaces.

In 2017, following our completion of Here East, the tech hub at the Olympic Park in London, Hawkins Brown was at concept design stage for the refurbishment of the massive Printworks building at Canada Water in London. We could see a lot of common challenges with these buildings, but they were far outweighed by the opportunities.

‘Why did developers take the risk of developing them …?’

We were interested in the background stories to these buildings too. Why did developers take the risk of developing them, why refurbishment instead of demolition and redevelopment, and where does their value lie?

The research grew from what was originally going to be a 20-page presentation to a 111-page hard-backed report designed by our friends at dn&co. Our main aims were to show that the re-purposing of large industrial structures provided the ideal conditions for innovative workplaces and provided good returns on investment.


The method was to investigate 30 case studies from around the world, which we then narrowed down to 12 to review in more detail. We focused on workplace as the predominant use. Interviews with key figures from several of our case studies were included and their insights and anecdotes were fascinating with one thing in common; they all to some degree took a leap of faith.

Our study used three central themes to review this building typology: volume, versatility and value. The projects were analysed and compared in terms of size, volume, location, rental and construction costs.


There is scientific evidence that large-volume spaces stimulate explorative thinking, and conversely small spaces encourage focused tasks. Bringing these two types of space together increases the perception of each and can be optimised more readily in large-volume buildings.

It is unsurprising to hear that converted industrial buildings provide an increased amount of space per occupant when compared to a standard purpose-built office building; what was surprising was that the volume per occupant, measured in cubic feet, increased by a multiple of 6.

One of the most attractive features of the large volume space, and something that came through when we listened to soundbites from tenants, is the opportunity for a mix of businesses and uses to come together under one roof. Many tech and R&D companies in their early years want to be co-located with like-minded companies and complementary uses. The RDM Innovation Hub in Rotterdam is a great example of this where vocational training, R&D, education and enterprise co-exist within a massive ex-shipbuilding yard.

Innovation is sparked through collaboration, so the ecosystems of businesses that have chosen to locate to converted industrial buildings seem to thrive.


Each of the 12 case studies proved to be very versatile in terms of workplace flexibility, economic scalability and physical adaptability.

The heroic size of tech hubs like Here East or NewLab at the Brooklyn Naval Yards allows for companies to scale up or down without having to move to a different location.

The buildings themselves tend to be physically robust, with higher loading capacities and are often characterised by their rawness and patina – the industrial aesthetic which has proved to be particularly attractive to the TMT (technology, media, and telecom) sector.

These buildings can often withstand substantial alterations such as knocking holes through walls and slabs and adding new floors, stairs and galleries without compromising their character. They are loose fit and long life; whether or not they are low energy very much depends on the level to which they have been converted, but the alternative proposal of demolishing them would, without exception, involve extremely high levels of wasted energy and materials.


The case studies presented are part of an economic success story, with there being proven demand for extra large-scale industrial buildings for the TMT sector. JLL’s analyses proved that construction costs for these projects are normal; however, due to their scarcity the rental returns are above the average submarket. In addition, all the case studies provide an abundance of volume at relatively low costs.

The social value of these projects, whilst difficult to measure is evident through their acting as a catalyst for the regeneration of run-down urban areas.

Industrial rehabs post-pandemic

A lot has happened in the world since the completion of our report and our minds are now focused on how we will work post-Covid 19 lockdown. Repurposed industrial buildings offer additional volume per occupant, an environment that can be adapted to other uses in the medium to long term and have the scale to accommodate an ecosystem of businesses that are connected but at a comfortable distance, whatever that ends up being, all under one roof.

If you would like a copy of the report, please email Hawkins Brown at [email protected] with the title Industrial Rehab.

Nicola Rutt is Partner/Architect in Hawkins Brown. The report Industrial Rehab: A New Space of Opportunity was written by Nicola Rutt and Michael Riebel (Hawkins Brown) with Michael Davis and Cameron Ramsey (JLL).
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