The pros and cons of a conversion compared to a new build project

As Architectural Design and Project Management experts we have experience of working on both conversion and new build projects. For developers, there are pros and cons to both options, so when we are asked for a definitive answer to whether one option is more cost effective than another, our answer is that it depends entirely on the individual project.

If you have a greenfield site, with no ground contamination, then it can work out cheaper to simply put in the footings and build it. However, the cost of building on a brownfield site can escalate, due to ground contamination and unstable ground issues, as you may need to carry out ground remediation and up the spec of your foundations.

Working on the conversion of an existing building can be a cheaper option, but it depends on the level of alterations required, especially if you are considering change of use. And the conversion of a listed building can be a lot more complex and costly.
Typically, space in the centre of town or city is limited, and so comes at a premium. This means that one of the advantages of converting an existing building, instead of going for a new build, is that it provides you with an avenue into prime town or city centre space.

One of our latest project management jobs is an ideal example of a successful, and cost effective, conversion project. Property investment company St David Group tasked us with managing the conversion of two floors of a former office building to provide student accommodation. Majestic Court, in South Wolfe Street, Stoke, was converted into 28 self-contained studio apartments.


Planning and design

Experienced at handling this scale of project, we were enthusiastic to give a new lease of life to an old, disused office building, which had stood empty for a number of years and had become obsolete. The development would help to breathe life back into an area in desperate need of regeneration.

Since the Government relaxed the planning rules for change of use from commercial to residential, it’s resulted in a much needed increase in the supply of housing. With the Majestic Court project, the apartments have been designed to meet the demand for student accommodation in the area.

Our first task was to assess the viability of the project; this involved an initial feasibility study to work out how many apartments could be built within the existing structure, to make sure that the development was viable.

We were also responsible for gaining planning permission and building regulations approval, writing the full specification for construction, tendering it to three local contractors, and overseeing the project – from initial design to completion – to make sure everything remained on track.

Originally, planning permission had been granted for a House in Multiple Occupation (HMO), but the design was for the more traditional student accommodation with communal areas.

However, Tony Davies, managing director of St David Group, wanted to invest in high-end, self-contained studio apartments. He believes that the size and specification of accommodation demanded by students has been rising steadily, and many now see a tiny room in a cluster flat as inadequate. The property investment company feel there is a strong demand, particularly from overseas, mature and post-graduate students for this type of accommodation and that the private sector is increasingly looking to supply this end of the market.

Gaining planning permission can be complex and you need to make sure that you have reasonable grounds for change of use. Planners will always take a practical approach, so our planning team made sure that the development had access to local amenities and bus routes and that there was no issues with excessive noise in the surrounding area. There is no demand for office space in Stoke and the town’s proximity to Staffordshire University makes it an ideal hub for students. We spoke to the planners and they were keen to regenerate the area, so an increase in the number of students living in the town would give it a much needed boost.

Project challenges

Externally the building was given a complete facelift, including concrete repairs to the front, a new roof and exterior doors. Internally, it was totally stripped back to a shell with all non-load bearing walls removed.

The Majestic Court development was not without its challenges. There were several design challenges with the conversion. Firstly, there was the issue of drainage. The original office building had all of its toilets at one side of the building, but we needed waste connections spread out across both floors, in order for every studio apartment to have its own bathroom. Another barrier was the fact that the first floor had a concrete deck. Overcoming this challenge was essential to the success of the build. The solution was to put in a false floor that would allow us to put drains underneath. Luckily the building had the head-height needed to pull it off.


There was a further design challenge around the requirement for smoke ventilation. With interior corridors, building regulations state that you need 1.5 m2 of clear space, if it’s going to be naturally ventilated. Mechanically operated ventilation was not feasible for the development, due to costs, so during the design process we had to expertly shoehorn a shaft going from the first floor up to roof level, all in the tight constraints of an existing structure.

A big challenge on the construction side was the lack of space. The entrance was directly off the pavement, leading to the lobby and up to the first and second floor. There was no external space for the building contractors, Kettle & Talbot, to store materials. Deliveries had to be unloaded at the pavement, taken straight upstairs and stored onsite. They had to work around the materials as the project progressed, moving them from one area to another. It was not ideal, but it had been factored into the initial design.


The new student pad

JCA’s design director, Eve Cullen-Cornes, was responsible for the interior design. In line with our brief, the new studio apartments at Majestic Court are very much aimed at students who aspire to a home that is smart and stylish with fresh designs and a high-end finish.

Young people don’t want to spend their time at university living in grotty student accommodation. They are focused and career driven – the precursor to the young professional. Equally, their parents want them to have the best. They’ve invested in their education and want to provide them with the opportunity to enjoy their university years, living in an environment that’s safe, clean and ultimately feels like a home.

The Next Steps

Several of the properties are being offered for sale, fully furnished, to investors.

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