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View from the opposite curb of a typical multi-storied residential apartment located in a densely packed residential area.


Since the concept of a built-up space and shelter first arose within human communities and societies, it has had multiple purposes and functions. As construction techniques improved, the roles of a safe space designed for human habitation and interaction only increased. Indeed, if we look back through antiquity, we will find that even the first cities, the first agrarian communities and even the first villages all had a common multi-use space or structure that was used for varying purposes such as a healing space, a kitchen, a cohabitation residential area, or even a ceremonial gathering space. 

Even though, today, we see more clearly defined roles for buildings constructed in urban areas in the United States, this was a relatively recent phenomenon. And as of the late 1990s, local state governments in the United States started to ease these restrictions to allow for buildings and urban spaces to have multiple roles. While the term mixed-use may sound unfamiliar, it is a very common aspect of the cities and communities we live in.

Converting a residential property into a mixed-use property can be cost intensive and tedious process, but the conversion also provides a lot of advantages.

Before we get into retrofitting and conversions, let us first understand what a mixed-use building is and what a residential building is.

What is a mixed-use building and what is a residential building?

A mixed-use building is any building that provides different services within its confines. That is to say that it may provide housing for families and couples, office spaces and storefronts for commercial use and general parking. Typically, industrial and agricultural activities are kept separate from residential and commercial spaces for multiple reasons including safety, security and health guidelines. 

A purely residential building is one that is solely focused on providing its tenants with habitation. Residential buildings include villas, single family homes, apartments,  or community housing projects. These kinds of buildings are legally mandated to only provide housing.

There are other types of buildings as well such as Agricultural, Industrial, Government and Special Use. As their name implies, Agricultural, Industrial and Government buildings are properties that provide or that are involved in activities related to agriculture, industrial or factory processing and governance, respectively. Special Use buildings involve properties that have unique roles such as public libraries, places of religion, schools etc. 

Throughout much of Europe, cities have expanded and grown around their city centre. The city centre acted as the central, multi-use zone, where residents and visitors could live, work and conduct business. In the United States however, zoning laws became strict after World War 2, and gradually became more relaxed by the mid 1990s. The segregation of residential and commercial was as stark as the segregation between residential and industrial & agricultural spaces.

Today, you find a lot more apartments and condominiums in cities like New York and Los Angeles, that also have a storefront on the 1st floor – an ideal example of how mixed-use buildings are becoming more common in American cities.

We remodeled and made an addition to the mixed-use building above, located in San Francisco.
We remodeled and made an addition to the mixed-use building above, located in San Francisco.
We remodeled and made an addition to the mixed-use building above, located in San Francisco.

How can residential buildings be retrofitted into mixed use buildings?

Before confirming that decision to remodel a part of your property for that exciting new store to open up, there are a few considerations to be made:

  1. Zoning laws and regulations surrounding mixed-use building conversions: Your local government will have regulations set up surrounding the conversion of residential properties into mixed-use properties. It is important to understand these regulations and to be aware of them, as the conversion can result in a few key developments.

    • Taxation: Property tax is raised if the building now houses commercial establishments within its premises in a lot of cases.

    • Permits & Licenses: Permits and licenses may be needed in order to provide a commercial use within the property.

    • Regulations: Regulations surrounding the size and employee limit for a commercial property can also be limited by your local government. 

  2. Type of Mixed Use Development: Depending on the type of property being refurbished and the budget available, there are two ways in which conversion of a purely residential building can work:

    • Vertical Development: Vertical development involves the conversion of the lower level floors or the street level floor into office spaces and other commercial establishments while keeping the upper floors residential. 

    • Horizontal Development: Horizontal development indicates the creation and establishment of different types of buildings for different uses in a small locality. An example of this would the placement of an apartment building within an office park or near a large mall. Naturally this kind of development is much larger in scale and requires a lot more investment.

    • Mixed Use Walkable Areas: A kind of hybrid of the above two types of development, where the lower floors of multiple buildings in a locality are used for commercial activities, but also provides easy access to essential services to all the residents within that community.

  3. Structural Integrity and Design: Refurbishing or converting a residential property into a mixed-use property can quite clearly, be an expensive task. It is important therefore to ensure that any changes to a building do not in any way hinder or impact the property’s structural integrity or the overall design aesthetic. Many developers for this reason, hire structural engineers and architects as consultants before embarking on a project of this magnitude.


Converting a residential property into a mixed-use property can be cost intensive and tedious process, but the conversion also provides a lot of advantages such as lower average housing rates within the community, better access to amenities and necessities, more compact and cost effective development and a stronger sense of community identity. 

If you’re committed and clear with your intent to move forward, it is best to take the advice of an engineering expert and a design expert before commencing a conversion project. If you live in California and you want to know how to go about this process, contact Design Everest. You’ll have access to the best structural engineers, architects and a dedicated project manager! Our team will help you navigate the process of transforming your property and your community and help you build a stronger and more resilient neighborhood.

Call us at 877-704-5687 to get a free consultation and learn more about mixed use buildings and how to convert your residential property into a mixed use one. We can have the experts on our team help you build your dream project!

Overall a very streamline and pleasant experience. I love the communication.

-Anne R, past client with a seismic retrofit project

*Note: The content published above was made in collaboration with members of Design Everest.

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