Harnessing the potential of meanwhile projects even as commercial development slows

By Henry Clarke on June 21 2020

It is clear that the COVID pandemic is set to leave a lasting impression on the world of commercial property development and management. Already we are seeing millions working from home, and many shifting away from reliance on offices, having seen the power of zoom and in some cases increased productivity from their employees. Simultaneously, in the hospitality, retail, and cultural sectors – most exposed to the lockdown and social distancing – we are likely to see, despite mammoth government support past and forthcoming, redundancies, closures, non-payment of rent, and ultimately bankruptcies. None of this is sufficiently offset by the growth of supermarket and e-commerce delivery business expansion.

This will not necessarily mean the end of the office as we know it – people will still need spaces to collaborate and build prototypes in, to drop off and pick up physical goods and services such as cars and dental services – at least until these are one day near fully automated – and manufacturers will need spaces for local assembly as we reshore. But there may not be as many people in them, and they certainly will not be densely packed together, and much effort will be needed to enable them to conference call their colleagues at home, to keep workspaces clean and spaced out. Inevitably there will be voids and vacancies, which in turn will impact the commercial and potentially even residential property development market.

One question will arise should the scenario described above be fully realised: what do we do in the meanwhile? An option that is becoming increasingly looked at is the potential to harness empty indoor and particularly outdoor space for meanwhile projects that can span a few years to 40 years or more, harnessing modular structures, offsite assembly (which helps reduce exposure to the virus), and which can even be built on sites such as car parks – retaining the use of space below by building on the air above them. Such approaches have been seen in Bristol as part of the Bristol Housing Festival, and even in the NHS on hospital land through the efforts of manufacturers such as Zedpods. The beauty of such systems is that they can be laid down rapidly, in less than three months in some cases, and can also be moved around.

But beyond these projects there is potential too for using many of the empty offices that may emerge once the great restructuring in the economy and on floor plates has taken place, to create accommodation for young people and key workers, for those who need to be in urban centres to keep our society and cities functioning. The coliving world will need to look much different from what its original designers have envisaged, with less communal space (at least unless and until hygienic ways of sharing are found), more private space with space between units. Faced with a choice of meanwhile coliving projects within or outside a building, and a potential void with rates and other costs, of potentially 5-15 years in some cases, the smarter landlords and estate owners are now seriously considering these options, in some cases as part of a wider package with local authorities and stakeholders.

Britain and the world may not have a V-shaped recovery. It may look more like an L or a very long U. This does not have to mean that space has to sit idle for a decade or two. Populations still have needs, even if their behaviours might change as a result of this pandemic and other secular trends, including the switch to online and automation. Property and space will need reshaping as in many cases, consumers and producers start to colocate and interact more directly with fewer intermediaries. Now, in these unprecedentedly challenging times, is the time to plan longer term, find interim solutions until the post-COVID picture becomes more apparent — to look forward and not backwards: in short, it is time to make space for new solutions.

Henry Clarke is the Chair of Spacemakers.consulting, and former Deputy CEO of the Crown Estate, and is a veteran from the rail and real estate development industries. Lord Wei of Shoreditch is a serial social entrepreneur and former advisor to HM Government.

Henry Clarke

Henry Clarke