In the third of the AJ’s three-point RetroFirst campaign demands, Will Hurst explains how the government could change its fundamental approach to property development.
Visitors to Brighton will have seen Madeira Terrace. The 1890s structure, built by borough surveyor Philip Lockwood, is said to be the longest cast-iron structure in Britain, its seafront arches running 850m and boasting decorative flourishes such as images of classical deities.
It fell into disrepair and has been closed to the public since 2012 but now there is hope that Madeira Terrace can not only be restored, but that the latest thinking on the circular economy can play a part in its rebirth. Council funding has been made available to appoint a design team for phase 1 of the regeneration and principles such as enabling zero waste on site are part of the brief, in line with Brighton & Hove City Council’s pledge to become carbon neutral by 2030. Back in September 2018, Brighton & Hove became one of the first councils in the country to declare a climate emergency and since then has been working with advisers including architect Duncan Baker-Brown on a construction and tourism focused circular economy route map.
This is firmly in line with the third and final ‘ask’ of the AJ’s RetroFirst campaign – that all publicly funded construction projects should look to retrofit solutions first. The thinking behind this demand was that government should lead from the front, showcasing the best ways of slashing embodied carbon in the industry while stimulating the market in retrofit products and skills. But Brighton & Hove is a pioneer, and turning the wider public sector into a model RetroFirst client is more than a little way off. So what exactly is happening in the wider field and what is driving the RetroFirst agenda forward? How could our ambitious third demand be achieved and what are the prospects for its success?
According to the Cabinet Office, the public sector owns more than 260,000 properties and spends more than £20 billion a year on running costs. Yet, despite acknowledging the importance of increasing recycling and cutting emissions, and making brief mention of whole life carbon, the latest iteration of the Government Estate Strategy, dated July 2018, says nothing about the circular economy nor the arguments in favour of the retention of existing buildings.
Since then there has been a groundswell of environmental activism and public concern, culminating in Parliament and hundreds of local authorities declaring a climate emergency and passing legislation requiring the UK to become net zero in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. As a result, some public bodies are moving towards a policy of retrofit-first on account of its whole-life carbon benefits, without any specific instruction to do so from the top. The Department for Education, for example, will shortly be running a pilot project to examine optimal retrofit solutions for three eras of school buildings – Victorian, 1920s and ’30s, and post-war.
‘The aim of this is to develop a kit of parts, testing out different options that might be good for retrofit,’ explains Crawford Wright, the DfE’s head of architecture and design. ‘We will examine things like over cladding, air source heat pumps and so on to understand what the best options are, including developing off site prefabricated solutions.’
This enlightened approach is sadly not yet the norm in central government and observers lament the proposal to build a temporary House of Commons chamber by demolishing all of the Grade II*-listed Richmond House on Whitehall except its façade under proposals designed by Allford Hall Monaghan Morris.
Anna Surgenor, senior sustainability adviser at the UK Green Building Council, says the plan should be reconsidered.
She says: ‘It sends out completely the wrong message. They don’t need to knock a building down; they could reuse and reconfigure it. It’s a prime example of where the government isn’t leading where it should.’
On the plus-side, Surgenor says that Brighton & Hove is far from alone among local authorities embracing reuse in construction, pointing to the Greater London Authority, Glasgow City Council and Peterborough City Council as examples of fellow circular economy pioneers.
Another leading the way is the West Midlands Combined Authority (WMCA), which is made up of 18 local authorities and three Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs), overseen by high-profile mayor, Andy Street. The region is committed to achieving net zero by 2041 and the WMCA – which works on a variety of large-scale public private schemes – only releases funding when projects match up to demanding criteria, including 20 per cent affordable housing, a brownfield-first approach, and the use of advanced construction methods, such as offsite manufacture.
The authority’s director of housing and regeneration, Gareth Bradford, says: ‘We run one of the biggest brownfield site regenerations in the country and our goal is to drive inclusive growth. A big part of our role is to reuse buildings that already exist and create new uses for them. Lots of these buildings are of huge community value and are in town centres or on major transport hubs.’
Public bodies such as the WMCA have begun to embrace the construction reuse agenda in a short space of time as the climate emergency has moved up the political agenda.
‘Everyone in the public sector is talking about this,’ says Baker-Brown, who recently established a new consultancy to advise clients on sustainable and ‘closed loop’ strategies in addition to his work at architecture practice BBM Sustainable Design and at the University of Brighton.
‘We are getting two or three enquiries a week from local authorities or other government agencies trying to make their estates climate-resilient. There’s a huge gap in policy. But what we do have, since the declarations of climate emergency, is the commitment.’
This is echoed by Wright at the DfE, who says ministers and civil servants are being pushed to deliver on the net zero carbon agenda by Number 10 as well as by local authorities. He says: ‘We are working on how to meet the demands of the 2050 net zero target and, since the election, there has been increased pressure to deliver on zero carbon and the environment.’
The political will, then, is there. What’s not there is the channelling of this will into public projects looking to retrofit solutions first as standard.
Making this a reality is a complex and knotty challenge, according to Mark Farmer, the government’s Modern Methods of Construction (MMC) champion and founder and chief executive of consultancy Cast.
‘There’s definitely a lack of data in this area and too much of what we have is focused on energy-in-use,’ he says. ‘Our industry is 50 per cent waste and that means it is a huge creator of carbon. If we had a broader definition of carbon, that could drive real political change.’
As well as a general lack of awareness of embodied carbon impacts, the terminology around reuse could be improved to aid its adoption, many observers believe.‘People don’t know what “circular economy” means,’ says Surgenor. ‘There needs to be a change of tack, a change in thinking about what its offer is.’
She adds that demonstrating the profitability of circular solutions – as Belgian salvage firm Rotor Deconstruction has begun to do through its redevelopments, such as that of the Brussels World Trade Center – could be key to this endeavour.
Persuading the government to routinely think in terms of whole life calculations could also be key. While retrofitting might seem to be common sense, it often doesn’t stack up when speed of delivery and capital cost is prioritised. However, private developers such as Urban Splash and Derwent have shown a different way forward based on the high quality conversion of existing buildings. Such an approach can be profitable and popular, aiding urban regeneration in a way that major new build schemes often struggle to do.
‘Regeneration is back on the table in a way we have not had for a while,’ says Mary Parsons, group director at housing association Places for People, which is working with Urban Splash on the second phase of the Park Hill development in Sheffield.
‘That can be aligned with reusing materials and avoiding waste but these threads of thinking in government need to be brought together.’
Parsons – who was also a commissioner of the Building Better Building Beautiful Commission, which recently endorsed the RetroFirst campaign – adds: ‘It seems so bloody obvious – why should you not explore reuse in the first instance? But it requires a different philosophy of design and there is a whole host of different market factors behind our current approach.’
Despite the barriers, observers have hopes that government can use its own procurement clout to help to usher in a RetroFirst revolution given the many boxes retrofitting ticks, including tackling the climate emergency, boosting SME businesses and overcoming many of the typical public objections to development.
Bradford, who spent three years advising David Cameron at Number 10 on issues such as housing and the environment, says government should use its armoury of sanctions and incentives to drive joint-venture partners to pursue both MMC and reuse in construction, which he sees as complementary approaches. ‘Regions like ours are the epicentre of this and regions will need to lead,’ he says. ‘But if Number 10 really gets behind it, then it will happen.’
For his part, Farmer says he is ‘reasonably optimistic’ that government construction will begin to embrace the circular economy. He says: ‘In 12 to 18 months there has been a societal shift in attitudes because of Greta Thunberg and stories about global warming and ice caps melting – this is now the mainstream. It is starting to affect investment, with BlackRock [the world’s largest asset manager] saying climate will be central to its investment decisions.
‘For government, it’s fair to say there’s some catching-up to do, for the simple reason that all this has happened very quickly. It needs a concerted effort, manifesting in policy change and changes to its own estate.’
For the government to change its fundamental approach to property development would undoubtedly be a major win. What would provide an undeniable statement of intent ahead of this November’s COP 26 climate change conference in Glasgow would be for government to build on that platform, put its money where its mouth is and invest in a deep retrofit of its own estate, attacking those £20 billion annual running costs and demonstrating global leadership at the crunch moment.