Roundtable Review: Can We Retrofit for Zero Carbon?

This Roundtable was Facilitated By:

Gareth Woodfin

Gareth Woodfin

Since joining HLM Architects Gareth has become an invaluable member of the team and has played a pivotal role in the success of our Cardiff Studio as Studio Director and regional lead for Wales and the South West.  Gareth has a broad range of cross sector experience, including Education, Healthcare, Commercial and Defence projects, however, his passion is for educational projects – creating thoughtful designs that are innovative, sustainable and exceed client and user expectations thus improving wellbeing.

Roundtable Partner: HLM Architects

Roundtable Background Information

This roundtable took place on the 9th of June 2021 and was facilitated by HLM Architects. Other contributors also included the likes of ISG, Welsh county councils and University College London.

The session focussed on considering ‘retrofit first’; that is, we should only build new where absolutely necessary. While this view may be at variance to the way much of our industry thinks, there are compelling reasons to analyse this approach further.

In April 2019 the Welsh Government became the first parliament in the world to declare a climate emergency, and have set out their plan to achieve a net zero Wales by 2050. Our general ‘throw away’ culture hugely impacts our climate; the demolition and replacement of buildings plays a large part in fuelling the crisis. For instance, in the UK we lose more than 50,000 buildings a year through demolition. Of the 200,000 tonnes of material waste we produce each year, almost two thirds is construction waste, with the construction industry contributing an estimated 10% of the UK’s annual carbon emissions. Now more than ever do those involved in the design and construction of buildings need to follow a collaborative approach to achieve net zero targets, ensuring buildings are fit-for-purpose and do not result in further carbon emissions.

So, can we achieve zero carbon through retrofitting buildings?

Making Better Use of Existing Building Assets

“The greenest building is the one that already exists” Carl Elefante, former president of the American Institute of Architects.

Rather than replacing existing infrastructure with new builds, we should first consider how we can make better use of what already exists. Assessing the feasibility of retrofitting as a first option is fundamental. Thorough assessments should be conducted on existing infrastructure while simultaneously taking into consideration whole life carbon and costs before making final decisions.

Opportunities and Constraints of Achieving Zero Carbon

In order to identify the opportunities that retrofitting offers we must first consider the constraints that need to be addressed. 50% of the embodied carbon in any building is in its structure and façade, which could be saved immediately by reusing existing stock. There is little to no evidence to suggest that new builds, especially school buildings, are performing any better from an energy point of view than schools that were built in previous ages. There may be a slight decrease in terms of fossil thermal fuels, however there is a rise in electricity usage. This is related to the operation and maintenance of each school. Carbon savings can be achieved by looking into controls: for relatively low investment one can achieve good savings with existing infrastructure.

The learning space must be designed based on the activities it supports. It must nurture cognitive development through providing good air quality, lighting and low noise levels. While this is its primary objective, it must also now be optimised for energy usage. Beneficial aspects in the design of Victorian schools were called out specifically: these old buildings support learning with very tall ceilings, deep rooms, light through tall windows able to get deeper into the room.

HLM recently completed a piece of work to develop a new university faculty estates framework. Initially the focus was on the provision of new space, however rigorous assessment of building occupation, utilisation, performance and high-level whole lifecycle assessments demonstrated that there was greater benefit in undertaking deep retrofit of new buildings to provide the space they required with a smaller overall footprint.

Against the backdrop of an ageing, poor quality building stock, a lasting effect of Covid-19 will be the inevitable rationalisation of estates, where the most inefficient buildings may be dispensed with… Surplus estate could help solve the problem of where to temporarily site pupils and students when their campus or school is being refurbished.  Retrofitted buildings do not necessarily need to have previously been learning establishments. The so-called ‘death of the High Street’ may offer up many redundant retail buildings in the centres of our towns and cities which could be creatively repurposed for education and learning. The retrofitting of city centre buildings could offer several benefits: the revitalisation of the beating heart of the town; the reduction of travel to out of town campuses with consequent carbon footprint and time savings. Architecturally significant buildings could thrive; with their external façades remaining and their internal infrastructure being made more energy efficient.

Funding and How to Collectively Incentivise and Legislate the Process

Refurbishment is popularly viewed as a second (rate) option, only coming into play when building new is not viable. A sea-change is needed to this misperception which highlights the climate, economic and social benefits of retrofitting. Legislation may be required to incentivise financially and also to enforce standards in building assessment including, but not limited to, condition surveys and whole life carbon assessments.

A common theme from the roundtable was the division of funding responsibilities. New builds and retrofits often fall to different government departments, with the lion’s share of funding going to new build work. While retrofit funding is made available, typically it is used to address incremental improvements to existing stock. This short term ‘sticking plaster’ approach can cause its own set of problems, with further rework being needed.

The Welsh Government already have the 21st Century New Build Funding in place, and the roundtable identified a specific recommendation to be taken to government. This is the need for a similar type of funding stream for retrofitting as there is for new builds. Asset renewal budgets are sporadic and not substantial enough to do a proper job. The Welsh Government are considered a key driver for devising incentives to meet net zero targets, however currently there are no financial incentives, such as taxation, to reduce carbon emissions. Although relevant to England rather than Wales, London’s Energy Assessment Guidance includes a mandatory payment of £95 per tonne of carbon in a building. This levy may be influential in kickstarting financial incentives for reaching zero carbon and changing the way existing building stock is evaluated. In regard to refurbishment projects, there is costly VAT. If this were reduced or eliminated it would make zero carbon buildings affordable and manageable to achieve.

To this end, the RetroFirst campaign launched by Architects Journal, and now supported across the country, calls on government to implement three things:

  • To cut VAT on refurbishment to 5%, or even zero, an option that’s now available to the UK since Brexit.
  • To amend policy to promote the reuse of existing buildings to high standards.
  • To insist that all publicly-funded projects look to retrofit solutions first.

Although both taxation and reduced VAT would benefit those considering retrofits, ongoing visible support is needed from government and climate change bodies.

As a society and an industry we are faced with the great challenges of reducing carbon emissions, making better use of a finite supply of raw materials and repairing the damage to our natural world. Retrofit first must become our mantra and we must move towards the principles of a Circular Economy. We should see our existing buildings as assets to be repurposed and our built environment as a materials bank ready and waiting to be given new life. The opportunity is as great as the challenge.