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MIPIM roundtable: ‘glamorising’ retrofit

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As retrofit becomes more attractive financially and environmentally than new build, architects, developers and engineers gathered at a lunch hosted by the AJ in association with ZBP at the MIPIM property fair earlier this month, to debate how we can encourage and ‘glamorise’ retrofit

The panel:
Paul Finch, AJ editorial director (chair); Paul Fletcher, ZBP;Simon Allford, AHMM; Geoff Barrett, Sidell Gibson Architects; William Jackson, Cushman & Wakefield; Nick Johnson, Urban Splash; Nahid Majid, Design Council CABE; Jonathan Payne, Willmott Dixon; Sunand Prasad, Penoyre & Prasad; Ken Shuttleworth, Make; Michael Walters, Aedas; Roger Zogolovitch, Lake Estates

Paul Finch: Why is retrofit so unconsidered in the pantheon of architecture? With its ease of planning and construction, we will see more retrofits than new builds in future, making it a very serious option in an economy where the idea of making amends is starting to gain precedence over razing everything to the ground.

This is a notion that has to be taken more seriously and be used more systematically. There are examples around Europe where there are strategic attitudes to retrofit, such as in Berlin. But what will unlock this potential in our existing building stock?

William Jackson: At the moment we’ve got a government pretending to be green, but it isn’t really. There’s no encouragement to retrofit. It should introduce a tax based on the efficiency of the building in terms of its use of energy – not what materials are used. If they’re not efficient enough, they get taxed, and you don’t tax the tenant – you tax the landlord. They would be forced to look at their buildings sooner rather than later, and urban decay slows down. You should be able to force developers, land owners and asset managers to undertake refurbishment.

Sunand Prasad: Taxation regulation must have a place. But what about glamorising retrofit, and making it culturally attractive to do it? AHMM’s revamp of the Angel Building was on last year’s Stirling Prize shortlist. Now that’s getting somewhere. It’s a retrofit building that is going to be famous not just because of its carbon footprint, but because it’s a wonderful place to work and live in.
The new consequential improvements submission in the planning regulations are a step in the right direction – when you refurbish or rebuild for reasons other than carbon reduction, the new regulations will compel you to use the Green Deal to its maximum. Because of this, carbon refurbishment isn’t seen as something separate from improving our building stock for greater value and personal use.  

I’m not saying don’t insulate, but let’s be sensible about it

Paul Fletcher: My fear is we are going to have a lot of white van men, with insulation panels slapped all round buildings to try and make things work. However, we can make buildings as complete functional systems that better respond to human beings and habitation. I’m not saying don’t insulate, but let’s be sensible about it. I’m a massive fan of Apple projects. Jonathan Ive, who created the iPhone and iPad, has now created the smart thermostat. It constantly monitors external and internal temperature, humidity, occupancy patterns and energy systems. In one year it creates 20-30 per cent savings on energy.

Sunand Prasad: What we really need is measurable hard data of energy use and savings, independently verifiable, credited and recorded, so that it’s a fact. But the real innovators in retrofit are going to be the people who finance it and work out how to do it at scale. Because the scale is absolutely phenomenal – just to retrofit housing stock will cost £20 billion a year.Michael Walters We’re a part of the RIBA’s CarbonBuzz, as are others around this table, and it’s about sharing, benchmarking and bringing together data so you are able to say how you can make an improvement based on real evaluations of buildings in use. But it is too slow and without that kind of data, you don’t know what you are benchmarking against.

ZBP's retrofit roundtable

Chimneypot Park by ShedKM - ZBP’s roundtable on retrofit

Nick Johnson: You talk about tax William, and there is a tax. However, it’s not an incentive, it’s a disincentive. It’s called VAT. We had 400 houses in Salford at Chimney Pot Park (pictured) we wanted to refurbish, which would have been entirely the correct environmental response. At the time VAT was 15 per cent; a surcharge that made the project unviable. So we got the planners to let us keep the facade of those 400 terraced houses, so we could zero-rate it. Now VAT is 20 per cent, and that is a real financial issue – where it really hits us in the pocket. There is a fiscal disincentive to doing environmental work to your property. Somebody has got to make some sense out of that.

Roger Zogolovitch: The buildings we have re-inhabited for working or office space are the ones we find most popular, despite their poor conditions – they all have something, a word we like to call ‘character’. There has been a clinical change in the way we create new builds, so that they don’t have character. In fact, every ounce of character is wiped away.

I’m appalled and amazed by stupidity of our industry’s response to a really intelligent move that the Treasury suggested, which is allowing conversions from office to residential. There is nothing in the proposed legislation that allows developers to create residential spaces without upgrading the accommodation they had. If you took your single-skin, brickwork, six-metre high office with its concrete, uninsulated framework and said: ‘Ok, I want to live in this’, you still have to conform with the Building Regulations. So the government had an automatic upgrade.

Simon Allford: I’m coming from a slightly more optimistic place. I don’t like to call it retrofit – I call it reinvention. When I was a student, architecture wasn’t architecture if you didn’t rip it all down and start again. And facade retention troubled us all. Now we’re in a place where clients buy old buildings because they have this thing called ‘character’. You don’t need tax incentives, you just need clients who are not bound by boring rules. The worst of those boring rules is in the City, where if you haven’t got certain ceiling heights, you’re finished. Yet rates in the West End have overtaken City because it’s got more interesting products.

Getting like-minded tenants in with developers is key

Jonathan Payne: There are some very educated developers out there who have seen that there’s returns to be made from existing stock. We’re working with some big blue-chip developers who are buying up 1960s and 1970s stock to retrofit. The challenge is to get the services into those buildings in an environmentally friendly way, where we can still get 2.5 metres floor height on a building that’s only got 2.8 metres. Let’s get a green charter, with people willing to operate the buildings in the way they were designed to be operated. Getting like-minded tenants in with developers is key.

Ken Shuttleworth: I agree about VAT. I’ve just done a house in London where it was cheaper to knock it down and start again, even if you put new walls where the old ones were. From an environmental point of view I found it ridiculous. I feel keeping buildings is almost the default position. New build only happens if retrofit doesn’t work out for some reason, whether it’s the height or space, or if a client like UBS comes along, like at 5 Broadgate.

Nick Johnson: You’ve also got to think of retrofit in a wider context related to place. There are some perfectly good places that could benefit from a rethink about their reason for existence. That in itself is a sustainable act, and one which would yield dividends. So rather than just concentrating on the physical fabric of buildings, rethinking places is as vital.

Nahid Majid: But the government doesn’t think about the reuse of buildings, and there’s a real lack of understanding about builders and usage and so on – unless it comes to cost, that’s when they start taking it seriously. But social and behavioural patterns have changed, as well as the way authorities are beginning to use their funds, so actually there’s a huge pressure to retrofit now.

And while we speak about social return on investment and we speak about people, the biggest thing I’ve noticed is leadership. You have to have strong leaders to push that agenda forward for areas. Leadership is fundamental.

The AJ would like to thank building consultant and engineer ZBP for hosting the roundtable. The firm also sponsored the Retrofit category of the AR’s Future Project Awards. www.zbp.co.uk

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