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Building back greener

2 December, 2022

M&S’s decision to knock down its flagship Oxford Street store and build a shiny new one sparked fury among a group of architects and heritage groups. But it’s not the building’s beauty or its history they want to protect, it’s the climate.

For a long time, climate conscious architects, developers and builders have focused on improving the energy efficiency of new builds but now attention is shifting to the carbon emitted during construction itself. With embodied carbon from the construction industry making up a staggering 11% of global carbon emissions, critics argue that unnecessary demolitions and re-builds aren’t compatible with the UK’s net zero targets.

Figures like these prompted Will Arnold, head of climate action at The Institute of Structural Engineers to call for a new Grade III status for buildings. Unlike Grades I and II, which together protect around half a million buildings across the UK deemed to be of architectural significance, the Grade III status would apply to every building and would come with just one rule: the property may only be demolished if it is structurally unsafe or is given special dispensation by the local planning authority.

This is an interesting idea and one well worth exploring given 50,000 buildings are reportedly demolished every year in the UK. However, any decision must be based on detailed and accurate carbon calculations. This is at the heart of the M&S debate. While one side argues that a comprehensive retrofit would cut the site’s carbon emissions nearly in half over the coming decades, with the greatest savings in the next few years, others argues the new build would deliver a carbon payback in 11 years. Understanding the short- and long-term carbon impacts of retrofit versus new build must be an essential part of any planning decision.

A Grade III listing would need to go hand in hand with a significant acceleration of action on retrofit. This, as recognised by campaigns like RetroFirst, is an area where the construction industry could take a progressive leadership position, compelling the sector to adopt new approaches and increase the skills and capabilities needed to deliver deep energy retrofit at scale. It may require a mindset shift but this is clearly the moment to take the lead and shape the debate for everyone.

By Lydia Thorold

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