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Retrofit First, Not Retrofit Only
A focus on the retrofit and redevelopment of 20th century buildings
I can get on board with this. Why wouldn’t you retain a building or structure if you’ve evaluated various factors and concluded that the optimum solution is to retain and retrofit. But that’s just it - this should be about finding the optimum solution, not a blanket solution. Sometimes the right answer will be to redevelop.
So what is Retrofit First, Not Retrofit Only? I first heard about this when attending the Smart Workplaces talk, which was run by the LPA. It’s a sort of guide which aims to “help navigate the complexity of decarbonising our built environment. It aims to bring greater clarity to planning and investment criteria, which ultimately underpin future development, pinpointing key considerations in determining the best approach taken from case studies and real-world experience”. It’s interesting to hear how Charles Begley CEO of LPA thinks we are in an “increasingly fragmented system with policymakers unsure of how to grapple the issue as they come under increased pressure to adopt a ‘retrofit only’ approach during the planning process”.
The report does the usual scene-setting, telling us that buildings are responsible for around 78% of greenhouse gas emissions generated in London and stating that to hit the UK’s 2050 net-zero goals buildings will need to be almost completely decarbonised (energy efficiency, removal of fossil fuels and integration of smart tech).
It then tells us that whole life carbon assessments (WLCA) should be used to identify the best approach to delivering NZC buildings, taking into account the building's characteristics and intended use, and balance carbon reduction potential with other sustainability outcomes. There’s the optimum solution I mentioned.
Plus, the report looks to the future and sees the adoption of NABERS UK, circular economy principles and low embodied carbon strategies facilitating the transition.
Ten recommendations are made, with five for property owners and five for policy makers.
Portfolio Strategy: owners should develop a portfolio-level NZC pathway and action plan to integrate NZC into decision-making at each stage of the investment lifecycle. This will enable meeting regulatory and industry standards and customer demand while protecting and enhancing value.
Asset Sustainability Strategies: create a strategy which considers economic, environmental, and social aspects to sustain long-term asset values. Asset sustainability strategies should also include an action plan and budget for achieving NZC within an appropriate timeframe, taking into account key leasing events to identify the best moment for intervention.
Project Brief: engaging key stakeholders in the initial project brief is crucial to ensure that all parties have a shared understanding of the project's principles and objectives. This includes property owners, investors, planning authorities, design teams, construction teams, and others. The portfolio-level NZC pathway and asset level sustainability strategy should be used to guide decision-making.
The LETI Climate Emergency Design Guide is a useful reference guide.
Whole Life Carbon: owners should undertake a whole life carbon assessment (WLCA) covering modules A-D and should demonstrate the most effective approach to reducing carbon emissions across the whole building lifecycle (the optimum solution). It should be updated at the end of each RIBA stage and at key project milestones.
Range of Options: consider a range of options to deliver NZC based on a quantitative assessment method that encompasses cost, return on investment (ROI), NZC, and other factors linked to the asset sustainability strategy.
Consistency: consistency must improve in national, regional, and local planning policy and application, especially between London boroughs and the GLA. National policy makers should review and update National Planning Policy Framework to include clear guidance for all local authorities on how to assess the relative merits of retrofit and redevelopment. The GLA and local authorities should develop a uniform approach to the evidence requirements for WLCA.
Retrofit First, Not Retrofit Only: this approach should be consistently promoted and communicated to all stakeholders. It should weigh the benefits of the proposal beyond the WLC effects, such as the social, economic, and environmental aspects. The GLA and local authorities should set a clear strategy allowing flexibility for decision-making on a case-by-case basis. The report also recommends removing VAT for retrofit projects.
Evidence: request evidence of the assessment of NZC approaches and the decision-making process followed by planning applicants at an early stage, as part of pre-application discussions.
Guidance: the provision of robust guidance on Whole-Life Carbon Assessments (WLCA) is needed at a national, regional and local levels. The report suggests that the Building Regulations 2010 could be amended to require and standardise the reporting of whole-life carbon emissions of buildings. Benchmark figures should be developed to allow comparisons between different projects.
Expertise: local authorities should ensure that their planning departments have sufficient sustainability expertise to assess planning applications from a net-zero carbon (NZC) and wider sustainability perspective.
Some of this is obvious, but the key takeaway is to look at things from a wide perspective. Set out a strategy and then evaluate each project against the strategy - not all of them will end up being retrofits.