M&S’s decision to appeal against Michael Gove’s verdict over the future of their flagship store reminds us (again) how important it is that we rise to the sustainability challenge, writes Richard McWilliams  

Richard McWilliams

Richard McWilliams is director, sustainability, at Turner & Townsend

The secretary of state’s delayed decision over the proposed demolition of the Marks & Spencer store on Oxford Street and the ongoing debate which has followed – most recently reignited by M&S’ decision to appeal – has brought the impact of the built environment on carbon emissions to the forefront of wider national discourse.

While the decision is more than a single-issue matter, it is hugely positive to see embodied carbon, which contributes to 20 per cent of the UK’s built environment emissions, playing such a key role.

Retrofit is essential if we are to meet the UK’s net zero targets. What has been made clear this summer is that increasing our ability to make informed decisions about the business case for retrofit versus rebuild is crucial and this will hinge on building specialist supply chains.

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We cannot underestimate the scale of the challenge – or the opportunity – for the UK when it comes to retrofitting our buildings. We estimate that over the next 10 years, the retrofit market for Britain’s domestic housing stock will exceed £500bn, with another £500bn again for non-domestic: hospitals, schools, commercial buildings.

This is vast. It is enough to keep the entire existing construction industry busy full time exclusively on retrofit projects.

So, as the overarching ambition for retrofit takes a step forward this week, a potentially catastrophic barrier lies in its way: the capacity of our sector to deliver. We need to look immediately and holistically at all the factors required to make retrofit at scale achievable.

Repurposing buildings to meet new environmental standards, comfort and wellbeing criteria and modern expectations requires not only time but specialist skills which the industry is currently very short of. We need a tenfold expansion of the construction industry’s retrofit capacity, fuelled by new recruitment, retraining of existing workforces, and long-term investment in local hubs of expertise and activity.

Programmes such as the Mayor of London’s Retrofit Accelerator for workplaces have helped to set benchmarks, to create a clear pipeline of work around which capacity can be built, and to upskill the supply chain. Alongside this, we need to continue to develop specialist skills and knowledge among clients and professional teams to help balanced, informed decision-making from a project’s early stages.

This is a golden opportunity for the construction sector to grow and transform into the 21st-century industry we have long aspired to become

Regardless of the outcome of the M&S appeal, Gove’s decision on Orchard House, also on Oxford Street, should give developers and asset owners further confidence that retrofit is here to stay, and must become the default position. In time, this will offer contractors greater certainty on a pipeline of work that can bolster business cases for investment and expansion.

Achieving retrofit at scale will take every tool in our industry’s armoury – from accessing new pools of talent, to digital tools, new outcomes-based contracting models, modern methods of construction, and much more. This is a golden opportunity for the construction sector to grow and transform into the 21st-century industry we have long aspired to become. It’s time to get with the programme.

Richard McWilliams is director, sustainability, at Turner & Townsend