Demolition or refurbishment?

By Lucy Barnard18 May 2022

Already adopted in the Netherlands, increasing numbers of politicians, planners and architects across Europe and beyond are looking to adopt a ‘presumption in favour of refurbishment and retrofitting.’ Lucy Barnard reports on the growing movement to reuse and upgrade existing buildings rather demolishing and replacing them. 

Carl Elefante, former president of the American Institute of Architects, pulls no punches when it comes to the subject of demolition.

“Buildings represent enormous investments in energy, material and financial resources, and yet thousands of viable buildings are destroyed every year in the name of progress,” he says. “The scale of such wastefulness is even more troubling as the world confronts climate change and the need for rapid reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.”

A presumption against demolition features on both SNP and Labour manifestos in this week’s local elections. (Photo: Adobe Stock)

He points to a study by the US National Trust for Historic Preservation, which estimates that even if an old building is replaced by another one which is 30% more energy efficient, it will take between 10 and 80 years for that new building to overcome “the negative climate impacts related to the construction process.”

The man who coined the phrase “the greenest building is the one already built,” Elefante has become an informal leader of a new movement among planners, politicians, architects and academics, promoting the idea that, rather than knocking down old buildings and replacing them, property developers should be encouraged to work with what they have already got.

The idea, already enshrined in law in the Netherlands, is currently gaining popularity across parts of Europe and even featured as an issue in the UK’s local council elections which took place at the start of May.

In Glasgow, a city which has seen a number of massive tower block demolition projects in recent years, the incumbent Scottish National Party has made a manifesto commitment to introduce planning rules outlawing demolition.

“We will introduce a presumption in favour of refurbishment and retrofitting rather than demolition of existing buildings,” Susan Aitken, SNP leader of Glasgow city council says in the local party’s manifesto.

And in the London borough of Westminster too, the local Labour Party has made a manifesto commitment to introduce a retro-fit test which it claims would “ensure that any new council development proposal fully assesses options for retrofitting and adapting existing properties before demolition and reconstruction is considered.”

Legislation to support building refurbishment
The UK government is also understood to be considering introducing its own legislation preventing demolition.

“We need to think differently,“ Lord Deben, the chairman of the government’s advisory climate change committee, told the BBC in October 2021. “It’s not acceptable to pull buildings down like this. We have to make do and mend.”

Even for demolition contractors who could stand to lose out on hefty contracts as a result of the change of mood, it’s a difficult concept to argue against.

“I personally am in favour of reclamation and refurbishment if a structure lends itself to that process. The same cannot be said for many architects and developers who put aesthetics ahead of those principles,” says Terry Quarmby, a former president of the Institute of Demolition Engineers and a director at Dorton Group.

William Sinclair, managing director of Dundee-based Safedem agrees.  “If the fundamental aim is to do what is good for the environment and the people implementing [any new planning rules] understand what demolition contractors actually do, they should have little adverse effect,” he says. “If a building can be effectively recycled, refurbished and repurposed to meet our environmental goals then great. We often work with clients to retain facades of architectural merit and recently entire building frames of city centre offices to be re-purposed as hotels or apartments.

Local elections in the UK take place this week. Photo: Adobe Stock

For most demolition contractors, the idea of keeping more viable buildings in use is a good one. What concerns them however, is what they see as a growing misconception of the demolition industry as being in itself harmful for the environment.

Contractors point out that they themselves are not involved in the planning process and much of their work involves removing unsafe structures or hazardous materials such as asbestos and recycling materials from previous demolitions into new structures.

“Having been engaged in the demolition industry for close on 50 years I have witnessed many changes both in methodology and plant usage etc. What hasn’t changed though is the desire to reuse or recycle the materials that are created by those operations. I and my colleagues are astounded by the lack of knowledge displayed by government, all other industries and the general public regarding the act of demolition,” says Quarmby.

“No demolition contractor that I know of discards anything until he/she has expended their energy in seeking a market for that material or product. Contrary to opinion the demolition industry fully embraces sustainable development and has an enviable record of recycling at or around the 97% mark.”

Recycling in the demolition industry
“As a fourth generation member of a family active in the demolition industry for over a century,  you could say that demolition is in my blood, and believe me, for generations, recycling has been in the DNA of the Demolition Industry,” Safedem’s Sinclair adds. “Demolition is about paving the way for the future and trying to get rid of the mistakes of the past. I think that is fundamentally ‘good.’”

“Most buildings we demolish have been poorly designed and constructed in the first place. Many of them no longer meet current building regulations, and certainly do not meet the environmental criteria required in today’s structures, so if we are demolishing buildings so that we can replace them with new structures which are cleaner, greener and sustainable then that makes demolition fundamentally good for the environment.

“Demolition has always been about recycling materials. The imperative is now the planet but in our industry, recycling has been imperative for profit,” Sinclair says. “You never want to leave a site without having made the most of what is left behind and purposing it to be re-used.  We are constantly looking for ways to re-use everything we find on a site.”

So how would a presumption in favour of refurbishment and retrofitting work?

Planning experts point to a number of schemes currently in operation which require developers to assess the impact of redeveloping a building compared with the alternatives of retrofitting it or refurbishing it instead.

The environmental impact of demolition
One of the most widely used is the Dutch Bouwbesluit or Building Act, which was updated in 2012 to include the requirement that any developer planning to demolish and rebuild an existing building extending to more than 100 sq m must first undertake a Lifecycle Assessment of the building which analyses the impact the development would have on eleven different categories including the amount of embodied carbon emissions they would create.

Under the Dutch model, planners and architects assume that residential buildings will be used for at least 75 years and office buildings for 50. This is then used to calculate whether demolishing and rebuilding will create more carbon emissions over the life of the building than refurbishing or retrofitting.

Scandinavian countries including Norway and Denmark are also looking at introducing some form of LCA assessment into their planning rules.

Dr Terry Quarmby Terry Quarmby: “astounded by the lack of knowledge displayed by government, all other industries and the general public regarding the act of demolition.” Photo: Dr Terry Quarmby

In its most recent guidance on the subject, the Norwegian Green Building Council points to KLP Eiendorm’s refurbishment of the old Max building in Trondheim as an example of good practice.

“When we build, we talk a lot about reducing green house gas emissions over time by reducing energy use. But often we cannot calculate a building accurately before it reaches a service life of approximately 50 years,” says project manager Line Gjerde Syltern. “By reusing the concrete and thereby not having to demolish and use new concrete, we reduce greenhouse gas emissions today.”

Back in the UK, the amount of carbon emitted by demolishing buildings, compared with refurbishing or retrofitting, has become the latest front in the antagonistic British town planning system.

One of the highest profile planning battles currently taking place in London surrounds proposals by much-loved British high street retailer Marks & Spencer to redevelop its 84-year-old headquarters store in London’s Oxford Street shopping district and replace it with a 10-storey Pilbrow + Partners designed modern building comprising offices, a gym and a smaller store.

M&S, which has been hard hit by the growth of ecommerce and the coronavirus pandemic, argued that it was looking for ways to “unlock value” from the site by creating a new more environmentally sustainable store, suited to shopping patterns of the twenty-first century.

“Our plans would transform the site, introducing a new landmark mix-use building,” M&S said in a statement accompanying its proposals, adding that these would include “a new full line store providing a modern, fit-for-purpose retail environment, best-in-class, prime grade A health and wellbeing-led workspace at upper levels, responding to the requirements of future tenants and a new landscaped public realm including pedestrian routes through the site and a pocket park.”

M&S’s plans were approved by local authority Westminster Council in November 2021 and rubber stamped by London Mayor Sadiq Khan in April 2022 before being temporarily halted by Communities Secretary Michael Gove.

Simon Sturgis, an architect and the founder of Targeting Zero carbon consultancy who is spearheading the campaign against demolition, estimated that demolishing the building and constructing a new one would release around 870kg of carbon dioxide emissions per sq m – amounting to a total of around 40,000 tonnes, compared with a comprehensive retrofit of the building which, he estimated would release less than 530kg of CO2 per sq m.

“What is required is that the same level of ingenuity and design skill that has been applied to the new build proposal is also applied to a comprehensive retrofit scheme,” Sturgis said. “If Westminster council allows proposals for existing buildings to be demolished and replaced without properly prioritising comprehensive retrofit solutions then it will not meet its stated climate change commitments.”

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