Is sustainable office refurbishment achievable?
Big claims are made for net-zero carbon emissions in construction. But when it comes to fit out and refurbishment, sustainability seems to be lower down the list of priorities. With the spotlight firmly on sustainability and a new dawn predicted for the office, creating healthy, versatile and low-impact workspaces is now top of the list.
For decades office refurbishment has had a variety of drivers - company culture, design trends, new ways of working and ways of using space. Consistent across this appetite for change and renewal has been a focus on increased productivity. Yet as the climate changes, this resource-hungry approach becomes increasingly unsustainable. With 50% of the UK's total waste generated by the construction industry, can office refurbishment ever be truly sustainable?
The practice of reusing and refurbishing buildings with their embodied carbon seems intrinsically sustainable. But as the office buildings of the 70s and 80s near the end of their usable life, do their inherent design faults even make them suitable for refurbishment?
To achieve sustainability, a new or refurbished building needs to reduce its environmental impact significantly. This includes reducing energy consumption and C02 emissions, minimising water use and maximising the use of recycled and reclaimed materials.
Refurbishment offers a significant opportunity to reduce environmental impacts. But where the existing stock is in poor condition, it's also perceived as intrinsically riskier. Sustainable solutions are often regarded as unattainable, and new builds offer the kind of off the peg energy-saving solutions that makes building conservation seem unattractive.
Reducing environmental impacts
So how can refurbishment achieve sustainability? There are four critical ways in which the industry can reduce its environmental impacts: materials, waste, water and energy.
WRAP (Waste & Resources Action Plan) identifies the use of materials with higher recycled content and lower embodied carbon and water. Refurbs should also specify materials with minimal maintenance requirements and prioritise the use of locally sourced products.
The early stages of any refurbishment project offer the best opportunities to limit waste. A building survey can identify opportunities to retain, reuse and recycle, helping to minimise waste throughout the project. Other considerations including the provision of skips, the segregation of waste streams and optimising opportunities for a favourable on-site cut / fill balance can all help to minimise construction landfill.
The cost of water sewage has increased by 40% over the last two decades, making water conservation an economic as well as environmental consideration. Simple and efficient rainwater harvesting, the installation of green roofs and the installation of water-efficient fixtures and fittings offer a commercial payback as they increase sustainability.
Refurbishment is the ideal opportunity to improve energy efficiency in a building through the use of energy-efficient HVAC. LED lighting and insulation. Adding passive infrared or photocell sensors to lighting is another proven way to reduce energy use.
Refurbishment or profit?
While refurbishment is clearly the more sustainable option in terms of resource efficiency, it's often more complex and not as cost-effective as other options. However, with 2050 goals looming, it's clear that refurbishment must be considered as a critical part of the push to cut carbon emissions.
Considering the embodied carbon in many office buildings, there are clearly significant opportunities to put sustainability first and create refurbishment solutions that are environmentally appropriate and cost-effective.