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a look at how deep refurbishment can cut operational carbon emissions.

The carbon case for refurb over new build

As Cop26 turns the spotlight on the climate crisis, we look at the carbon and business case for choosing refurbishment over demolition and rebuild. With construction responsible for nearly 40% of global carbon emissions, including 28% operational emissions, the construction industry has a critical role to play in government ambitions to be net carbon zero by 2050. With radical changes to be made, refurbishment has a key role to play in tackling issues of embedded and operational carbon in the built environment.

The environmental case

London Energy Transformation Initiative (LETI) research has clearly shown that buildings need to reduce their embodied carbon emissions and their carbon footprint to achieve net zero. LETI has called for a carbon budget of 600 kgCO2e/m2, which is around half the current emissions of a typical commercial building at 1,000 to 1,500 kgCO2e/m2.

A deep refurbishment can cut operational carbon emissions without the emissions of a new build. By retaining the structure and sub-structure that are responsible for around 60% of embodied carbon, a refurb still achieves excellent fabric performance, reducing heat demand and matching or exceeding the ventilation and lighting standards of a new build.

In addition, the significant embodied carbon impact of new builds is such that the savings on operational carbon can't compensate. These front-loaded emissions are not covered by the promise of carbon savings in the future. And as we're hearing from Glasgow, emissions need to be cut sooner rather than later.

Policy change

So what's the picture when it comes to planning policy? The RetroFirst campaign introduced in 2020 has attempted to put pressure on stakeholders to consider refurbishment first by prioritising retrofitting over demolition and rebuild. In the 2021 London Plan, the Greater London Authority set out a series of design principles to prioritise retention and refurbishment.

The adopted plan for the city region's statutory spatial development strategy includes a Circular Economy Statement which details how materials and products can be recovered and reused. The plan also contains a Whole Life Carbon Assessment for construction that includes embodied and operational carbon emissions.

One issue that the RetroFirst campaign highlights is the 20% VAT levy on refurbishments in comparison to just 0-5% on new builds. The campaign is encouraging VAT parity to make refurbishment a commercially attractive option.

Business case

But carbon isn't the only reason for refurbishment. Existing buildings are lower risk and refurbishment can be completed to a tight schedule. Speed is of the essence, as construction technology and workplace practices are ever-changing, and refurbishment brings buildings to market faster. For example, a new build may take upwards of five years while the Crown Estate's 7 Air Street refurbishment project which was awarded BREEAM Outstanding certification took just one-and-a-half years.

Tenants and occupiers are also driving the change towards environmental awareness, and are under pressure to make sustainable choices. And a high-quality refurbishment can look as fresh and modern as a new build while cherishing the existing fabric and pumping new life into it. Good examples in the capital include the Johnson Building in Central London and The Tea Building in East London.

The bottom line is that refurbished buildings can be as inspirational as new builds, and they're critical in helping us cut emissions now.


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