Stick or twist: to retrofit or build new?

As awareness of the climate crisis heightens and the call for action intensifies, one of the questions at the top of the agenda for property owners looking to reduce their carbon footprint is should we retrofit, or should we build new? Principal Consultant, Andrew Tasker discusses how to weigh up your options and choose the right route for your project.

The right option for you isn’t going to the be right option for another business or building portfolio. A number of key considerations need to be established, before any work is started, such as: creating a sustainable and energy-efficient strategy, analysing the investment and lifetime cost of either retrofitting or rebuilding, setting a goal to generate a high-performance building, and then establishing what the impact that is going to have on the environment.

The carbon conundrum

To simplify: embodied carbon is the carbon released in the manufacturing, production, and transportation of building materials. Operational carbon refers to the use of energy to heat, cool and power a building. Or in other words, carbon generated from the operation of the building.

As the grid decarbonises and runs increasingly on renewable energy, and technology developments mean we can operate our spaces more efficiently, attention is turning to embodied carbon; with local authorities now factoring this into planning approvals.

As a business, now is the time to seriously consider cutting your embodied emissions, otherwise achieving net zero carbon will be near enough impossible.

So, how to choose the right route for your development? Each case is unique, but we explain how to understand and weigh up your options.

Your specific needs and requirements

From a sustainability perspective, we would always encourage the responsible use of resources and this means refurb and retrofit for the majority of cases. However, that’s not to say that building new isn’t the right way to go for your specific needs and requirements. 

We help clients decide whether to refurb or divest their property by

  • Looking at their portfolio baseline – for example, the number and type of buildings, and their total emissions
  • Establishing what the company’s strategy is, and its aspirations for sustainability
  • Complete a building audit, which would consist of creating a bespoke solution for each building, as each one will have different needs to reduce its operational emissions
  • Considering the opportunities for refit or new build for each building, enabling an informed decision based on a variety of factors including financial and sustainability issues.

As part of our wider sustainability advice, we also advise clients to:

  • Consider their options early. Early consideration is key to developing a robust approach to embodied and operational carbon.
  • Consider efficient technologies, such as heat pumps and district heating, and make the most of green energy solutions.
  • Use low carbon alternatives such as recycled concrete and steel, or cross-laminated timber (CLT), as they can have a large impact on embodied carbon performance.
  • Get tech savvy – monitoring energy usage, identifying energy saving opportunities and incorporating built-in smart technology to allow clients to analyse and optimise how space is used.

"This isn’t, and can’t be, a ‘one size fits all’ approach; every case is unique and needs careful evaluation based on the life cycle impact. Various factors are considered, such as materials used, climate, design of existing buildings and the building’s structural stability".

Andrew Tasker

Associate Director - EIA & Sustainability


Greener goals

The challenge of lowering and ending carbon emissions is an enormous one. The thinking behind reducing the carbon footprint should not just be applied to buildings; the first point of call should be to eliminate or ‘reduce’, in line with the GHG Hierarchy. How can we eliminate this source of carbon emissions and can we think differently about how our business operates to not only reduce carbon emissions but gain increased returns on investment?

It’s not feasible, or sometimes even suitable, for every single building to qualify for a net zero carbon retrofit. But you’d be surprised at what a little creativity and resourcefulness can do in making a difference to the emissions and carbon footprint of a particular building. Replacing the building fabric, building services, and changing depth of floor plates, positioning and size of core, and floor-to-ceiling heights are a just a few key considerations which can make a paramount change in the bid for lower carbon.

Thinking for the future

The future needs to see developers actively looking for buildings that are suitable for refurbishment, rather than development. A circular economy approach encourages ‘retrofit first’ and the reuse of an existing building. ESG investing and Green Finance have become conventional options, with cheaper mortgage rates is just one example of the benefits of having a greener building.

Refurbished buildings can inspire equally as much as new buildings. Heritage buildings in particular are a big consideration in maintaining the importance and character of town centres, which are in danger of being lost when flattened and replaced. And if we’re to achieve the net zero emissions set out, the future needs to see developers actively looking for more buildings that are ready for refurbishment, rather than development.  

Whether it’s retrofit or building new, thinking and planning smart is absolutely necessary to shape a greener future.

Adding to that is the fact that around 80% of buildings in 2050 have already been built. So whichever way you look at it, decarbonising our existing building stock is a major priority.

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