Refurbishment and Retrofitting: In with the old, out with the new!

Sharpe Pritchard analyse the challenge of decarbonising the construction sector.Icons Hazard

Finding ways to decarbonise the construction sector represents a huge challenge for policymakers and stakeholders.

Even as buildings become more energy-efficient to maintain and power, vast amounts of carbon are usually emitted during the manufacture of components and the construction of new buildings.

These emissions – known in the industry as ‘embodied carbon’ – occur before a building is even in use, meaning that even the ‘greenest’ designs can be detrimental to efforts to decarbonise.

In light of this challenge, many developers and local authorities are increasingly looking to retrofit and refurbish existing buildings as a means of minimising embodied carbon.

The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government estimated in 2020 that there are over 640,000 empty homes in England alone, representing a huge opportunity to address the housing crisis without incurring the environmental costs of embodied carbon. Whilst new homes are undoubtedly greener than old ones, improving the environmental performance of existing buildings and refurbishing dilapidated sites is unquestionably the most sustainable means of developing the built environment.

The advantages of retrofitting and refurbishment also apply to commercial buildings. As climate crisis grows in salience, developers are increasingly moving away from the ‘knock it down and start again’ mantra which has previously dominated the sector in recent decades. The Hylo building on London’s Bunhill Row, which was completed last month, was built by extending the existing Finsbury Tower first erected in 1967. The developers estimate that the decision to build on the existing tower saved 35% of the carbon-footprint of a new build scheme.

At the other end of the spectrum, Marks and Spencer was criticised in recent months after being granted planning approval for the demolition and re-build of their 90-year old flagship office on Oxford Street. The art deco building will be replaced with a 10-storey structure, the embodied carbon of which would require the planting of 2.4 million trees to offset according to estimates by those in opposition.

As part of our SP Green Goals initiative this month, we will be publishing articles and other resources to support our clients to achieve their sustainability goals. Please look out for more pieces over the next month!

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