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refurbishment projects looking at new ways to increase sustainability.

Putting refurbishment at the heart of sustainable construction

With 2030 targets for carbon emissions looming, the construction industry is increasingly aware that environmental sustainability alone may not be enough. A more holistic approach around carbon footprinting and whole life emissions may be required to reduce the significant impact that the built environment has on global emissions.

While new-build continues to benefit from incentives, refurbishment has a critical role to play in making significant carbon savings when compared to new build. The Empty Homes Agency suggests an average of 35 tonnes of C02 could be saved through refurbishment, a commercially viable strategy for developers who can also save both time and up to 80% of the costs of demolition and new build.

New build vs refurbishment

While new-build construction prioritises green materials and methods to reduce the environmental impact of a building, there may be untapped opportunities for carbon reduction in existing buildings. A study of commercial buildings in Chicago and Atlanta in the US revealed that a new build that makes 30% energy savings will also take up to 80 years to overcome the negative climate impact of construction. The most energy-efficient buildings may already exist.

Across the EU, a similar picture is emerging. With commercial buildings representing 40% of total energy consumption and 36% of greenhouse emissions, building renovation is being seen not only as the way to meet carbon neutral targets but in overcoming the impacts of climate change. The proposed EU Renovation Wave aims to carry out 'deep' renovations that will create 60% carbon efficiencies in pre-existing structures.

Reducing embedded carbon

Building refurbishment can help to address the issues of embodied carbon by upgrading and substituting components and materials. Natural materials with high recyclability should be the first choice or those with high recycled content. Reusing materials also extends their service life and reduces their environmental footprint.

Buying local materials both reduces the emissions created through transportation and puts jobs into the local economy. Similarly, the use of prefabricated and modular elements significantly reduces construction waste and ensures that resources are used more efficiently. Considering the life cycle of the materials used in any refurbishment allows you to choose durable and efficient materials that won't require regular replacement. Every time a building element is replaced, the environmental footprint of the building grows.

Durable envelope

A well-designed facade that has a low environmental impact, is aesthetically sympathetic and easy to maintain is a crucial element in any refurbishment. The creation of a new building envelope is critical to achieving energy efficiency, achieving carbon-neutral goals and reducing operational costs. Choosing durable and low-carbon products will ensure the refurbished facade stands up to wear and tear, reducing the need for replacements with their associated environmental costs.

When considering the life cycle of the building, each refurbished element should be designed to be easy to extract for more efficient recovery of materials and replaced or reused without impacting other elements and increasing waste.

Life cycle perspective

As our building stock ages, refurbishment and retrofitting will become increasingly central to maintenance, energy efficiency or change of use. Only by taking a life cycle perspective can impacts be made in a holistic way, because every time new materials are used on an existing building, its embodied carbon increases.

By making choices that embrace life cycle costs and creating elements that make it easy to extract and reuse materials, refurbishment can continue to be a valuable asset in the race to carbon net-zero.

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