Retrofit for purpose
Retrofit: transitive verb meaning “to install (new or modified parts or equipment) in something previously manufactured or constructed”; “to adapt to a new purpose or need”.
The term ‘retrofit’ has a funny tendency of cropping up in times of global crisis, having first appeared in common parlance during the 1940s, when vital supply chains severely disrupted by the outbreak of WWII necessitated the upgrading and re-use of materials and equipment. Retrofit also enjoyed a renaissance during the energy crisis of the 1970s when residential energy conservation becoming a political priority and homeowners had a new-found enthusiasm for modifying their homes to become more energy efficient. No surprise then, at a time when the United Nations has declared a global climate crisis and here in the UK almost three-quarters of all local authorities having formally declared a climate emergency, that retrofit is back on the agenda.
For those of us involved in the design and construction of buildings, retrofit has become a hotly debated topic. After all, constructing new buildings is an energy-intensive process – the UK construction industry is estimated to account for some 40% of the country’s carbon emissions. At the same time, 50,000 buildings are demolished every year in the UK, resulting in some 126 million tonnes of waste sent to landfill. Would it therefore not be better to find ways to save, retain and repurpose those same buildings, particularly in our towns and cities where vacancy rates continue to soar?
The Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) certainly thinks so and has called for a halt to building demolition in order to lower carbon emissions and help the UK reach its net-zero targets by 2050. RIBA has also argued that there should be a presumption against demolition and that developers should be obliged to refurbish.
In light of the current climate emergency, this seems like a reasonable argument. Retrofitting and adapting old buildings must surely be the most sustainable way of designing for the planet, right? But what if a building occupying a prime site is beyond repair? What if the costs to the developer of retrofit far outweigh that of new build? Clearly the case for and against retrofit over demolition demands some further scrutiny.
Unlocking economic value through retrofit
Whilst the decarbonisation of UK real estate has driven demand for skills in renovation, maintenance, and improvement (RMI) most particularly in the social housing sector, the ability to deal effectively with little used or redundant buildings has the potential to unlock significant economic value. Progressive owners, developers and some local authorities are beginning to see real commercial opportunity in the retrofit and repurposing of existing property assets.
According to a recent freedom of information request made to UK local councils by Glide, up to September 2019, the UK had 617,527 empty buildings. Of this number, 445,310 were residential dwellings and 172,217 were commercial buildings. No doubt a number of these properties will be demolished to make way for new build, but many could be reused for commercial or residential purposes and represent a huge potential for investment for foresighted developers. This is especially true in our towns and cities where a perfect storm of changing consumer habits, growth in e-commerce and high business rates has seen many buildings become practically redundant. WFH and a lack of consumer confidence during the Covid19 pandemic has accelerated this trend, with an exponential rise in retail vacancy rates in urban centres and many office buildings up for let or sale.
Undoubtedly, the recent change in permitted development rights that unlocks many more commercial buildings for conversion will see some residential developers eyeing up the potential for more resi on our high streets and within city centres. However, if we are truly to ‘build back better’, we need a far more holistic approach to the way we plan and design the re-use of these buildings to enable sustainable socio-economic regeneration through a mix of residential, commercial and industrial space.
Working across a wide range of sectors, Stephen George + Partners has been fortunate to work with many enlightened owners and developers and we have had some interesting conversations about the opportunities that retrofit and re-use present: whether it be Logistics or Data Centres, Education and Healthcare, Workspace or Residential – or, indeed, a mix of all or some of these uses – it’s amazing what clients are now considering. However, it takes experience, technical know-how and established cross-industry insight to marry existing building fabric with the requirements of each of these sectors.
Designing for longer life and deconstruction
Whilst there is clearly a case for buildings to be preserved and re-purposed where the situation allows, there will inevitably be circumstances where they need to be replaced. But rather than ‘demolition’, we should perhaps shift our emphasis to a process of deconstruction, salvaging and re-using materials whenever possible, instead of simply taking them to landfill.
Many will point to the fact that recovery and recycling rates for construction and demolition waste in the UK are already significantly high – but the majority of this comprises the ‘downcycling’ of heavy materials such as concrete, brick and asphalt to produce lower value product. There is little reuse and ‘upcycling’ of components and products.
It is here that we, as architects and designers, have a key role to play in the delivery of a more sustainable built environment and ensuring that the components we specify retain their value for clients. Demand and economies of scale, particularly for new housing, has seen the industry get into the habit of designing and building at volume quickly, rather than always designing logically and sustainably. Many buildings that are built now can typically only have a 30-year life span; at that point, choices made today, perhaps on the most cost effective but less efficient building materials, will later result in either demolition or require complete repair works, costing yet more money, using even more materials, embedding more carbon. Should we not just design effectively right from the start?
The decisions we make at design stage should look not only to increase the quality of materials to ensure a longer life for the building, but also their ability to be effectively re-used at the end of a building’s life. We should use our expertise and know-how to offer clients alternative solutions, whether that be sustainable materials or better ways of building, such as timber-frame structures or prefabrication. We need to present a clear, evidence-based argument for a building designed to live longer than 30 years and the long-term savings of specifying materials that can maintain their value and be reused should the building require deconstructing or repurposing.
Retrofit, demolition or new build – enabling the right choices
The arguments in favour of retrofit are strong, but it’s not a complete panacea to the climate crisis or, indeed, a solution to growing populations and the buildings they will require. After all, what do we do when all the old buildings have been retrofitted?
It makes perfect sense that, when it comes to existing buildings, we should adopt a presumption against demolition and first consider the ways in which we can refurbish and repurpose to bring them back into active use. However, we also need to accept that many buildings will reach an end-of-life point that requires demolition and that new build will remain a necessity. It is therefore important that we get the design and delivery of new buildings correct now, ensuring they are long-lasting, energy and resource efficient, flexible to change and repurposing, and can be effectively deconstructed at their end of useful life.