Good intentions may be leading us towards bad outcomes. Many buildings were not constructed with the future in mind and prioritising retrofit could fail to solve the poor placemaking of the past, says Steve Perkins at Turner & Townsend

The construction industry has come a long way already on its sustainability journey – and is very aware of the road left to travel to get to net zero. The drive to decarbonise is felt at every stage and level of project teams and sustainability is now increasingly embedded in decision-making.

Steve Perkins[26] copy

Steve Perkins is a director at Turner & Townsend

The ultimate objective of net zero is to ensure a liveable planet for now and the future – and by extension, healthy and sustainable communities. This is what we all want, and we need to make sure that this aim – good, long-term placemaking and community development – is not subsumed by the debate around methods of sustainable construction.

A net zero building is not an end in itself. It also needs to deliver what a community wants and needs to thrive. Otherwise it will eventually need to be torn down or refitted at an extra carbon cost to make it work for the future.

>> Also read: Balancing the need for retrofit from a planner’s perspective

>> Also read: This is how we can rise to the retrofit challenge

We need to focus on pragmatic, long-term, sustainable decision-making. This means moving away from a binary setup of “retrofit always” on the one hand, and “rebuild” on the other towards a discussion focused on how we retrofit and rebuild in a way that is both sustainable and positive for placemaking.

Preventing polarisation

Retrofit is an area where good intentions may, in some cases, be leading us towards bad outcomes. The root of this lies in the mistakes of the past.

Many existing buildings were not built with the future in mind, or were even specifically planned out in ways that we now consider poor placemaking.

This can often be seen in estate regeneration projects. Take Kidbrooke Village – the redevelopment of the Ferrier Estate in Greenwich, south-east London. Ferrier was a product of its time and became increasingly dilapidated – known for crime and poverty. Its major demolition and regeneration has helped to completely transform the site – and its reputation. It has encouraged a revival in the area’s fortunes, and the lives of the people that live and work there.

Other estates of that era and earlier have found the same: rebuilding from the ground up can sometimes be necessary for better placemaking and long-term societal and social value outcomes.

If we need to demolish and rebuild, it does not mean we turn our backs on sustainability

There is a risk that prioritising retrofit in these cases could fail to solve the poor placemaking of the past and in fact embed it for further generations. Dilapidation and anti-social behaviour happened in these locations for a reason – and we need to break the cycle to improve lives and opportunities.

If we need to demolish and rebuild, it does not mean we turn our backs on sustainability. In fact, low-carbon construction becomes much more important. Methods of carbon calculation, and data-led, robust, whole-life carbon measures are making huge progress.

Even in demolition there is a lot of opportunity for re-use of materials and “upcycling” of elements like furniture. Innovative construction methods from offsite manufacture to the use of digital tools to reduce waste can also contribute to a more sustainable construction process.

The onus is also on all of us to embed net zero design in our new-builds – and to consider reconversion and flexibility of assets from the first design stages. Through this, future-proofing new projects to minimise the need for future refits or rebuilding, we can help to create sustainable places that also fulfil the needs of communities.

Remain retro-first

None of this should take away from the excellent principle of “retrofit first”. If a building can be refit in an efficient and sustainable way, that leaves it future-proofed and delivering what the community needs. We should prioritise that approach.

Considering a retrofit ahead of a demolition is sensible and practical both from a financial and environmental standpoint. It is also vital that, when looking at retrofit, we focus on high-quality, whole-building refurbishment that delves deep to understand the opportunity and limitations of a building and the best way to repurpose it.

Successful, sustainable retrofit comes from this understanding twinned with setting clear parameters and expectations for future performance – being clear what good looks like.

Just the fact of retrofitting a building does not make it sustainable. The same attention to carbon calculation, whole-life carbon consideration and energy-efficient design and manufacturing decisions is essential

It is an enjoyable and rewarding challenge to provide creative retrofit solutions – as we have done recently with the refurbishment of the Royal London Hospital buildings to transform them into the new Tower Hamlets Town Hall in east London, or on a larger scale with the repurposing of Battersea Power Station. Turning 18th, 19th and 20th-century buildings into renewed community assets and giving them a new lease of life is precisely what we will need to do to many of our historic and older buildings across the UK.

As with new-build, we also need a focus on sustainable construction techniques. Just the fact of retrofitting a building does not make it sustainable. The same attention to carbon calculation, whole-life carbon consideration, and energy efficient design and manufacturing decisions is essential.

Sustainability is a broad term, and to deliver communities and buildings that thrive into the future we should not be limited by a black-and-white retrofit or rebuild debate. Let’s remain focused on good placemaking in the first instance – creating long-term assets for communities and healthy, well-planned spaces.

If this can be achieved via retrofit, all the better. Either way, sustainable construction is on the rise, and we can make sure that impacts are mitigated, and benefits are maximised.

Steve Perkins is a director at Turner & Townsend