Climate-Conscious Architects Want Europe To Build Less

An unusual conservation battle is brewing on Oxford Street, London’s busy shopping avenue. Marks and Spencer is a British retailer giant known for its high-quality groceries and inexpensive homeware. They want to close down their flagship store and build a new one. A group of architects and local activists have mobilized to save the store—not because it’s beautiful, or historic, or even particularly beloved. It was the weather.

You need steel and concrete to build new buildings. The production of these materials releases large amounts of carbon dioxide. You also require a lot fossil-fueled energy for transporting and assembling them. Critics say M&S—as the retailer is affectionately known in the U.K.—is about to throw away a perfectly good set of buildings (three make up the site, built in the 1930s, ‘60s and ‘80s), which could be refurbished instead. Unnecessary demolitions and re-builds, they argue, aren’t compatible with the U.K.’s target to rapidly cut greenhouse gas emissions by 78% by 2035, and reach net-zero by 2050.

“We can’t continue to develop in a 20th century fashion,” says Simon Sturgis, an architect and environmental consultant. “Buildings are resources that we need to value: whether it’s a nice art deco structure or a pretty grim 1970s block, is not the point.”

In an unprecedented move, in April, the U.K.’s housing minister ordered a halt to M&S’ demolition while the government considers evidence over their redevelopment’s carbon footprint. He called for a public inquiry to the matter, which was scheduled for October.

M&S’ struggle to demolish reflects a revolution currently taking place across the construction sector. Since long, builders, architects and developers have been focusing almost exclusively on energy efficiency in buildings to help reduce their dependence on fossil fuels for heat and cooling. (M&S argues that its new building would be less polluting to run than the old ones.) But in the last few years, as the urgency of cutting emissions has grown, attention has shifted to all the carbon emitted during construction, before a tenant even gets the keys to a building: this so-called “embodied carbon” from the construction industry makes up a staggering 11% of global carbon emissions according to the World Green Building Council (WGBC), a nonprofit.

Since there aren’t many zero-carbon construction technologies available yet, one of the easiest ways to cut embodied carbon is simply to build less. Or, as anti-demolition campaigners say: “The greenest building is one that already exists.”

In Europe, which has both a massive stock of buildings and some of the world’s most ambitious climate goals, environmental imperatives are triggering a fundamental rethink of construction. In March, London’s mayor issued new guidelines which require developers to prioritize “retaining existing built structures for reuse and retrofit,” and to prove that they have a good reason for any substantial demolition.

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New construction plans are upsetting the continent. Paris’ green party has labeled a forthcoming toblerone-shaped skyscraper, designed by renowned Swiss studio Herzog & de Meuron, an “ecological aberration.” Meanwhile, tastemakers are praising those who avoid building: in 2021 the Pritzker prize, architecture’s most prestigious award, went to Lacaton and Vassal, a French couple famous for retrofitting unused social housing, whose motto is “never demolish.”

“The whole discourse has changed in just three years,” says Hattie Hartman, sustainability editor at the Architects’ Journal (AJ), which has run a campaign calling on architects to “retrofirst”—making reuse of old buildings the default. “The first question now should be: ‘do we need a new building?’ That’s turning the thought process of the profession upside down.”

Binary and post-retrofit

Tom Bird—Courtesy Fabrix

The idea of reusing buildings isn’t new.Charming historic buildings have been repurposed in many cities. In New York and London, for example, brick factories and warehouses make for stylish loft apartments, while Amsterdam’s Schiphol bus station is a repurposed WWII-era aircraft hangar. However, such projects are rarely the norm. Developers often have trouble clearing buildings that aren’t of clear historic value or were built during the late 20th-century architectural boom. Some structures aren’t safe to reuse, but experts say many of the 50,000 buildings demolished in the U.K. each year are lost unnecessarily.

Clive Nichol, one of those trying to save these ugly buildings is Clive Nichol. Fabrix was founded by Clive Nichol in London, which is now a leader in retrofitting and reuse. Fabrix soon acquired a 1980s block of brick with only three floors and very few windows. Southwark’s building is located just south the River Thames. It once housed a unit of police cybersecurity. “Everybody trying to buy it wanted to demolish it. Because if you look at that,” Nichol says, holding up a “before picture” as he stands in the street opposite the building in late June. “No one thinks that could be something.”

Fabrix didn’t lay a single brick at the building, which they renamed The Binary. To increase the height of the building, they enlarged its windows and replaced the existing parking lot with an outdoor garden. They also removed the interior partitions that were blocking access to new spaces. The new cooling and heating systems were also installed, which allowed the building to run entirely on renewable energy. Three businesses quickly took over the space and used it as office space. Fabrix says avoiding a demolition and rebuild of the relatively small building prevented 193 metric tons of CO2 from being emitted—the equivalent of taking 120 cars off the road in the U.S.—and 600 metric tons of construction waste going to landfill. These numbers might seem small, but they are significant enough to make retrofit rather than demolition a common practice in the construction sector.

Nichol began spreading the gospel to his neighborhood. The charity that was next to Nichol had planned to demolish its five-story, unattractive building. They wanted it to be replaced with a seven story one. But Nichol convinced them to retrofit. “From a carbon point of view,” he says, “but also in terms of time, money, and all the upset in the neighborhood in terms of waste and air quality, that’s kind of an easy one.”

Nichol says that the biggest problem in keeping buildings standing is a developer’s lack of imagination. “It takes a lot more thought to retrofit,” Nichol says. “You’ve got to make many more decisions about how to repurpose things, fix things, within a lot of constraints.”

For a better understanding of the problem, picture yourself growing up with a dollhouse. Maybe you even abused it. Perhaps you added other toys or painted walls. And after sitting in your parents’ attic for 25 years, it’s looking pretty beat-up. You have a child who wants to build a dollhouse. Do you plan to spend hours fixing it up? Oder just throw it away and pick up the brand new one from the store.

Roots in The Sky, pre-retrofit

Courtesy Fabrix

It’s not always straightforwardIt is up to the owner of the building whether it should be preserved. Though some say “never demolish,” the demands of a dense, growing city sometimes means demolition may be necessary, Nichol argues; either to allow for land to be used better for the local community, or for the size of a building to be dramatically expanded. “I think [local governments] need to set rules on that on a planning scale,” he adds.

Fabrix’s latest project is the redevelopment of a large former court building around the corner from The Binary. After acquiring the court in 2020, Fabrix decided to retain the façade, but demolish and rebuild the inside. The reasons are twofold: a) no one has any use for a building designed to be a court; and b) the existing structure couldn’t support the 1,000 metric tons of soil that Fabrix plans to put on the roof to build an urban forest open to the local community. Unlike most “rooftop gardens,” which place plants in a thin layer of soil or pots, the trees will be able to put down roots, and therefore live longer. (The project is called, a little cheesily, “Roots in the Sky.”)

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There are ways to limit the climate impact of construction, even when you don’t retain an entire building. Fabrix plans to use 30 metric tons steel that it has recovered from another building site. Fabrix is currently having safety agencies in the U.K. recertify the steel, with the goal of reducing carbon emissions by up to 80 percent. Concrete used in the building will contain 96% recycled cement, saving 7,000 metric tons of CO2—the annual emissions of around 1,500 cars. And where technically feasible, the crew will use bolts instead of welded connections, to make it easier for future projects to take parts from the building if it’s ever taken down.

Those techniques center around “deconstruction”—the careful dismantling of buildings to allow for their parts to be reused. Nichol says that Fabrix spends 20% more on deconstruction than if it is done by hand. The U.K.’s supply chain system for recertifying materials is just beginning, Nichol says.

This supply chain issue is beginning to improve. Some cities like Portland, Ore. or Palo Alto in California have established rules that requires demolition companies demolish certain types of buildings. Amsterdam and Paris require architects and developers to plan for future demolition. Imagine a Lego set taking the place of your dollhouse.

By and large, however, regulators have been surprisingly slow to tackle the construction industry’s outsized carbon emissions, compared to other polluting sectors like transport and agriculture, says Stephen Richardson, Europe director at the WGBC. “The problem is the complexity, and a lack of data.” In most countries, developers aren’t even required to measure the carbon footprint of their projects. This makes it difficult for developers to estimate industry averages or set target goals for green buildings. And, even if developers have an estimate of their new building’s carbon footprint, it’s hard to prove that it will be more environmentally damaging than keeping the old one.

The M&S case helps to understand the confusion. The retailer says that a report carried out by an independent environmental consultant concluded that demolishing and rebuilding the site “offered significant sustainability advantages over a refurbishment.” It claims that, because the new building will require less energy to run and won’t need as many repairs as the old one, it will offset the emissions from redevelopment within 16 years. But Sturgis, the architect opposing M&S’ plan, says that calculation assumes that the refurbishment option “would be essentially a lick of paint” with few measures to improve the building’s performance, and would need to be repeated after a few years. M&S declined TIME’s request for an interview.

Sturgis believes that the company should carry out more intensive, lasting refurbishments. This includes upgrading the interior layout and adding insulation. Double glazing is also recommended. Also, more efficient heating and cooling systems are needed. According to his analysis, compared to a redevelopment, a comprehensive retrofit would cut the site’s carbon emissions—from both construction and day-to-day operation of the building—nearly in half over the coming decades. It would be the next few decades that the most carbon-savings are possible, as this is when greenhouse effects must be reduced at their worst.

“Having done this work, I know it’s not necessarily the cheapest, easiest, and cleanest,” says Sturgis, who led retrofit projects as an architect. “But it can be done.”

Drawings of Roots in Sky post-retrofit

Courtesy Fabrix

A new generation of architects is getting serious about their profession’s contribution to the climate crisis. The Architects Climate Action Network is a group of hundreds mostly young architects from Europe. They work together to get the universities and architecture firms to pay more attention to embodied CO2 and prioritise retrofits. “My generation and people younger than me have a lot more climate anxiety, so we feel like it’s our responsibility to make the industry change,” says Zafir Ameen, who has helped lead ACAN’s student network and works in a London-based firm.

Ameen says he’s seen a rapid shift in the industry’s awareness of embodied carbon since he started work in 2019. He says that awards bodies are increasingly requiring firms to submit measurements of embodied carbon if they wish their buildings to be recognized. Some firms have also developed digital tools to allow architects and engineers to determine the physical footprint of buildings at the very beginning of the design process. In the meantime, academic researchers have released a number of studies that attempt to determine the carbon cost of new buildings and establish targets to the industry for energy efficiency improvements and embodied carbon.

European regulators are also on the rise. Since 2020, France, Finland, and Sweden have each began requiring developers to submit assessments of their projects’ construction carbon footprint to get planning permission, joining the Netherlands, which has required the measurement since 2013 (in most countries, however, permission is linked only to the carbon emissions that will be generated while the building is in use.) E.U. The E.U. is looking at adding similar policies to the existing legislation across all blocs on energy efficiency in buildings. In theory, projects deemed too carbon-intensive should be blocked under such planning regimes—though Richardson, of the WGBC, says it’s too early to tell if that is happening.

According to Nichols, retrofits are more popular than new constructions for now because they have a greater business advantage. He says that the post-pandemic shift towards homeworking has had a devastating effect on commercial real property. Green credentials can be a significant advantage to developers looking to make a mark in an increasingly competitive market. “It is more expensive to create buildings like this, but it also creates less risk: there are an enormous number of organizations that have net-zero targets now, who want office space that can help them with that. So we know there’s demand for our buildings.”

Hartman, AJ editor says Fabrix could be a catalyst for both the industry and the wider public to adopt a more sustainable aesthetic. “Retrofitting is not always sexy, high-concept architecture, but you can get some fantastic results,” Hartman says. “We need to shift our idea of what we think is beautiful.”

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