Last month the AJ launched a new campaign (RetroFirst) which champions reuse in the built environment and calls for action to promote retrofitting existing buildings over demolition and rebuild. Specific demands include cutting VAT on refurbishment, changing planning policy and approaches to the procurement of publicly funded projects. Given our international commitments to reduce emissions and that 35-40% (AJ) of the UK’s emissions come from the construction industry, these measures seem long overdue.
The central argument of retrofit is the extension of a building’s life to reduce consumption and emissions. With this in mind it’s essential that we also consider the importance of flexibility going forward. The new builds of today will be part of our built stock tomorrow and will themselves be subject to refit, and change of use in the medium and longer term.
If we are to achieve this adaptability, we need to build in the concept of loose-fit and employ methods of construction that are flexible enough to accommodate modification over time. Take Georgian terraces for example. They are low-tech components of a tried, tested and popular urban type that has been successfully adapted to different uses (houses, offices, schools, surgeries, restaurants, hotels, HMO’s etc.) over a considerable period of time. City blocks have survived because they too have the flexibility to adapt and evolve.
It is far more difficult to adapt very bespoke buildings. As designers we need to reconsider the assumption that that form follows function and embrace the idea that a brief can be accommodated in a form which fits into the fabric of a city / town / neighbourhood, and that both should be designed to adapt to different uses over time in a sustainable functional manner.
Putting loose fit at the centre of the design process is one thing but achieving it in practice across the industry will be challenging to say the least. The implications of using different structural systems, overall construction methodology and material selection would need consideration from the outset together with a commitment to spatial and programmatic compromise. All these decisions carry cost implications which will potentially impact financial viability. The whole development team would need convincing and we know from our own experience at SRP working across all aspects of asset management, refurbishment and new build, how complex competing priorities can be.
So yes to retrofit today, but also to facilitating loose fit going forward. In the same way as we hope that lobbying for changes to taxation, planning policy and building regulations will succeed in promoting the reuse of existing buildings now, we also need a framework for the longer term. Where new build is the right choice, we need to incentivise the adaptability that we will need in the future.