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Introducing RetroFirst: a new AJ campaign championing reuse in the built environment

Retrofirst twitter 2019 3

Amid the escalating climate crisis, Will Hurst introduces the AJ’s campaign to prioritise retrofitting existing buildings over demolition and rebuild

The three demands of RetroFirst

Retrofirst demands


Cut VAT rate on refurbishment, repair and maintenance from 20 per cent to 5 per cent


Retrofirst demands2


Promote the reuse of existing building stock and reclaimed construction material by introducing new clauses into planning guidance and the building regs

Retrofirst demands3


Stimulate the circular economy and support a whole-life carbon approach in construction by insisting that all publicly funded project look to retrofit solutions first

Architects work in a problematic sector of our economy. Worldwide, the construction industry consumes almost all the planet’s cement, 26 per cent of aluminium output, 50 per cent of steel production and 25 per cent of all plastics. Because of the way it gobbles up energy and resources, the industry’s carbon emissions are sky-high. While the UK construction industry has much to be proud of, it produces no less than 35-40 per cent of the country’s total emissions. As the government’s chief environmental scientist, Ian Boyd, has said of our current economic system, ‘emissions are a symptom of consumption and, unless we reduce consumption, we’ll not reduce emissions’. 

One reason construction consumes so much is because it is based on a wasteful economic model which often involves tearing down existing structures and buildings, disposing of the resulting material in a haphazard fashion, and rebuilding from scratch. According to the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), of the 200 million tonnes of waste generated in Britain annually, 63 per cent is construction debris. We lose more than 50,000 buildings through demolition every year and, while more than 90 per cent of the resulting waste material is recovered, much of this is recycled into a less valuable product or material, rather than being reused.

It is essential that we think reuse first, new build second

Simon Allford

Demolition isn’t just an environmental problem. It is frequently undesirable on social and economic grounds. According to Anne Power, emeritus professor of social policy at the London School of Economics, demolition is both costly and unpopular, stoking opposition to development among the general public. Retrofit of existing buildings, on the other hand, is cost-effective and generally less controversial, because it conserves and enhances existing places and neighbourhoods. As for carbon emissions, retrofit makes sense because of the substantial embodied energy savings made in repurposing existing buildings, compared with the ultra-high embodied energy costs of demolition and rebuild. Last year’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report made clear that the world has little over a decade to radically reduce its carbon emissions in order to avoid catastrophe. Yet construction remains skewed towards energy-intensive new build. To give an example of the impact, RICS has found that, by practical completion stage, 35 per cent of the whole-life carbon of a typical office development will already have been emitted, while the figure for residential is 51 per cent.

So, if the case for retrofit of buildings is so clear-cut, why isn’t it already the default option? The barriers include a lack of policy in this area and the challenges of densifying urban and suburban areas while retaining existing buildings. 

One of the most significant barriers is something of a quirk, a distorted system of VAT which props up the industry status quo. We pay 20 per cent VAT on most forms of refurbishment and renovation and typically between 0 per cent and 5 per cent on embodied carbon-guzzling new build. 

As the Building Better Building Beautiful Commission said, this ‘effectively represents an incentive to rebuild, rather than to renovate’, despite the many ‘social, economic and environmental’ benefits of repair and maintenance.

It is a paradox that those who care about renewing and upgrading buildings are penalised financially when they try to do so

Alison Brooks

It doesn’t have to be this way. And, in light of the climate emergency and the UK’s legal commitment to a net-zero economy by 2050, it cannot remain this way. The AJ’s RetroFirst campaign proposes a major reduction in the consumption of raw materials and energy in the built environment through the adoption of circular economy principles. It opposes unnecessary and wasteful demolition of buildings and promotes low-carbon retrofit as the default option. 

Given that the replacement of buildings is sometimes necessary, it also supports deconstruction – a more sustainable alternative to demolition whereby buildings are dismantled with the goal of maximising the reuse potential of their components. 

The neglect of the potential of existing buildings is a huge failure of policy

Sunand Prasad

The Architects Declare campaign has already demonstrated a powerful consensus in favour of action on the climate emergency – more than 600 architecture practices have signed up and the movement has momentum among other professions and around the globe. RetroFirst aims to build on this momentum by calling on the government and political parties seeking power to support the necessary fiscal and planning policy reform.

Over the coming months, the AJ will investigate these three areas – taxation, policy and procurement – to refine and expand upon our RetroFirst demands before formally submitting them. We hope that architects, their built environment colleagues and the institutions which represent them will join us in this call-to-arms by backing RetroFirst.

Additional reporting by Richard Waite.


How you can get involved

Follow the progress of RetroFirst using #retrofirst on social media
Contact us at retrofirst@emap.com to back the campaign


Peter St John, Caruso St John Architects
‘I completely agree with the aims of this campaign. There should be more incentives to reuse and refurbish buildings, rather than replace them. Encouraging the imaginative reuse of buildings is one of the most responsible things architects can do’

Alison Brooks, Alison Brooks Architects
‘I absolutely support this campaign. Legislation needs to be more radical to address the issues of waste and embodied energy in construction. It’s a paradox that those who care about renewing and upgrading buildings are penalised financially when they try to do so’

Steve Tompkins, Haworth Tompkins
‘Prioritising deep retrofit massively reduces resource extraction and waste, so I fully support this campaign. The government should do likewise by immediately downgrading VAT on existing building work’

Rab Bennetts, Bennetts Associates 
‘Retrofit is not only a responsible option but can be just as stimulating as new build, as it often results in innovative design solutions. Furthermore, the scale of retrofit that is needed to meet the UK’s carbon targets is simply vast’

Sarah Wigglesworth, Sarah Wigglesworth Architects
‘This initiative is urgent but well overdue. The three demands are based on sound science. They are unassailable and must be implemented if our government’s commitments to zero carbon are to have any credibility. Furthermore, existing buildings are what manifest the identity of places. They embody meaning and represent a resource waiting to be fulfilled’

Ian Ritchie, Ian Ritchie Architects 
‘The AJ’s campaign to bring building retrofits to the top of the agenda is to be applauded. Just as financial and legal mechanisms should be designed to create economies which conserve and regenerate resources, rather than squandering them, existing buildings should only be destroyed if they lack the resilience to be fit for purpose. They contain not only embodied CO2, but cultural and social memory of value’

Simon Sturgis, Targeting Zero 
‘To achieve a zero-carbon economy, retrofit must become the default for every project’

Duncan Baker-Brown, BBM Sustainable Design
‘The only way we can meet the government’s target of net carbon zero by 2050 is to stop demolishing and retrofit instead, something that many major cities around the world have already recognised’

William Mann, Witherford Watson Mann
‘We fully support this campaign. The tax discrepancy between new build and refurbishment is absurd. Using the existing capacity of buildings is economically, environmentally and socially responsible and, rather than discouraging it, policy should be actively encouraging it’

Sunand Prasad, Penoyre & Prasad
‘We add no more than 1 per cent of new building to UK building stock every year, and yet the carbon performance of new buildings gets far more attention than retrofit. The neglect of the potential of existing buildings is a huge failure of policy and action at every level from central government to institutions and individual companies in confronting the climate emergency’

Fiona Scott, Gort Scott 
‘We really support this campaign. There needs to be a presumption in favour of refit. There’s often very little incentive to retrofit, even for a client who is committed to retaining an existing building. But the typical project process at an early stage is also an issue: most often, the client is taking early-stage advice from a cost consultant or project manager and, by the time we come on board as architects, a decision has been made, based on scant information, that a new building will be cheaper, easier and less risky’

Simon Allford, Allford Hall Monaghan Morris
With ever more, ever cleaner energy, the attention now turns to carbon. Recycling buildings, materials and ideas is the history of architecture. Waste and consumerism is very much a 20th-century obsession. Now it is essential that, when making, we think reuse first, new build second. And when we must make from new, we should be thinking of how designs that address current needs might be adapted to future needs – think of the programme The Universal Building. As death and taxes are the only two inevitables, we should make sure buildings never die and thus also avoid any tax!’  


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Readers' comments (4)

  • check out my suburban housing estate refit-mixed use ideas. “labyrinthine suburban”

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  • So much potential for reinvention/ refurbishment is being missed on the assumption it will limit development. At London Structures Lab we are trying to enable a greater understanding of how the embodied energy can be reused. We’re putting our experience on our website to try and help.


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  • Retrofit is dead on the ground if VAT remains. WE need to campaign actively for 5% or 0% VAT on retrofit.
    Government is not listening to this most basic demand. Most simple. Most fair demand. We need to boycott this tax and have all clients set aside the tax into an account. If the construction industry boycotts maybe the government will listen!

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  • Designed in flexibility of new buildings and re-use of existing building stock is the key to a sustainable future.
    We have worked in the commercial retail sector for over 50 years and have participated in the continual change renewal and adaption of building stock that we had originally designed and built years ago.
    Our buildings are simply and economically designed with a view to flexible re-use.
    Over time this has facilitated a continual program of subdivision, alteration, adaption and upgrading of the building envelope to suit changing occupier needs.
    We support the campaign to reduce Vat on Retrofit to encourage a more sustainable future
    Chris Horner Director RGP

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