The Architects Journal has announced the launch of a campaign this week to lobby for the prioritisation of architectural retrofit over and above the more carbon intensive process of demolition and new build - as a means to further the objectives of the wider ‘Architects Declare’ movement to improve the carbon consumption of the construction industry. We have been highly enthused to read this week’s announcements and wholeheartedly endorse the ‘Retrofirst’ campaign ambitions; many of which have been formative in our own decision to found a studio with a focused expertise in creative reuse, refurbishment, conservation and the capitalisation upon the potential of existing fabric.
The responsibility of the construction industry for significant portions of the UK’s carbon emissions and resource consumption is widely acknowledged, as has the potential role of retrofit in meeting the country’s carbon reduction commitments (further reading: www.ukgbc.org/climate-change). VAT tax exemption for new build contracts were introduced as part of a policy designed to reboot the construction industry following the 2008 financial crash, and to turbo-charge housebuilding to meet the UK’s targets for countering the on-going housing crisis. A negative side-effect of these well-meaning but short-sighted policies is the financial penalisation of retrofit schemes; which secure construction jobs and create homes just as readily, but through significantly more sparing low-energy means.
The AJ campaign is calling on Government to 1) reverse the VAT incentives to make retrofit the more economical first choice for developers, 2) to tailor National Planning Policy to prioritise schemes that upgrade and reuse existing stock, and 3) to steer the course of considerable public procurement toward retrofit solutions across the country.
Our philosophy at CWa has always been to reuse first, and we are proud to say that all of the projects currently on our books deal with sensitive refurbishment and the reuse or expansion of existing fabric. For us the benefits of reuse are as much about cultural legacy as they are about conservation of resources. We believe that the most enjoyable parts of our cities are those which have evolved through the accretion of countless phases of frugal adaptation, slowly acquiring a richness and authenticity that is impossible to replicate in the most diligently designed new building. Approaching our design practice from this starting point, we see work with existing fabric (of any age or quality) as the best way to preserve, improve and pass-on a meaningful ‘sense of place’.
Sadly much of the fabric constructed in our cities in the last 50 years is seldom given the chance to establish itself as part of that cultural identity, before it is razed to the ground and replaced by new higher density development - that is often only of very marginally improved appearance or utility. These existing buildings, although usually unloved by todays trends and tastes, have no hope for acquiring an aged legitimacy without the wear of good use, the care of regular upkeep, and frankly the time to grow old. Successful precedents abound of schemes that upgrade problematic mid-20th century buildings by slashing their energy consumption and improving their appearance both internally for users and residents and outwardly to the wider urban realm.
The need to densify our existing city centres is often cited as the insurmountable challenge of retrofit, and the carte-blanche upon which the UK’s recent tower building boom has been delivered. But again interesting projects are already unlocking the latent potential of our built environment, focusing on a slower paced and more evenly spread gradual increase in density - by developing in, on and around our existing building stock, rather than relying on the ‘silver bullet’ of single sites of conspicuous high-rise.
CWa support for this movement is twofold; we believe in the ethical responsibility of the construction industry to safeguard our existing resources, and we believe in the culturally enriching capacity of reuse to strengthen the authenticity of our towns and cities – no matter what the building. We would be very interested to collaborate with any building owners who would like to improve the environmental performance of their assets, whilst investigating opportunities for delivering increased density and the introduction of new complementary uses.