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RetroFirst: Is the heritage sector adapting to reuse?

Hardcastle crags gibson mill credit national trust images john millar
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Architects have welcomed calls by Historic England to slash VAT on retrofit, but warn that barriers to reusing buildings still remain. Richard Waite reports

Historic England made headlines this week by joining calls from the AJ and others for VAT on retrofit and revamp work to be slashed. 

In an unexpected move, the government’s heritage watchdog and adviser has called for the tax on refurbishment, currently levied at 20 per cent, to be reduced just weeks before new chancellor, Rishi Sunak, announces his 2020 budget.

The surprise plea to the government, echoing a key demand in the AJ’s RetroFirst campaign, was announced alongside ‘game-changing’ new research published by Historic England into the embodied carbon of the nation’s built heritage.

The study, There’s no place like old homes: reuse and recycle to reduce carbon, forms part of the organisation’s wider drive to end the ‘fast fashion for buildings’ and to encourage retrofitting of existing stock instead. Drawn up for key stakeholder group the Historic Environment Forum, the document includes a wealth of hard-to-ignore data that Historic England says must become a key factor in decision-making if the government is to meet its target of being carbon neutral by 2050.  

But, while the VAT anomaly is a major obstacle to the retrofitting of historic buildings, it is not the only one. In fact, Historic England’s progressive stance on reuse might well fall foul of the many ambiguities of interpretation in the worlds of listing and conservation, not to mention out-of-date planning policies.

Resolving these issues is paramount as the global environmental crisis heightens tensions between preservation of old buildings and the need to reuse them to produce sustainable cities for future generations. 

According to the report, clever, sustainability-focused renewals of old buildings can improve energy efficiency ‘dramatically’, reducing CO2 emissions by more than 60 per cent.

Current VAT rates are a disincentive for the custodians of our historic environment to invest in and care for much-loved buildings

But it is Historic England’s public call on the government to rethink the VAT situation, arriving hot on the heels of an almost identical recommendation in the Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission’s final report, which has caught the attention. A spokesperson for the non-departmental public body says the current VAT rates are a ‘disincentive for the custodians of our historic environment to invest in and care for much-loved buildings’. 

They add: ‘With growing evidence that reusing buildings would be a way to decrease our carbon footprint in the face of the climate crisis, it’s clear that the current VAT system needs reconsidering.’

This change in the VAT regime would be widely welcomed across the heritage sector, not least by AJ RetroFirst signatory SAVE Britain’s Heritage, which has been campaigning for just that since the 1970s. SAVE director Henrietta Billings says: ‘[Long] overdue changes to the VAT rules would help. Financial arguments are used to justify the demolition of historic buildings all of the time.’

According to Billings, the absurdity and contrariness of the current taxation landscape is exemplified in Urban Splash and ShedKM’s Chimney Pot Park project in Salford (2008). The developer had originally wanted to fully refurbish the 16 derelict Edwardian terraced homes but balked at the VAT they would have had to pay to do that.



Source: Urban Splash

Chimney Pot Park, Salford, by ShedKM for Urban Splash

Says Billings: ‘In the end, because of VAT rules, they ended up altering the scheme so it qualified as a new build at the zero rate [leaving just the brick façade] and, as a result, gutting much more of the interiors than they intended.’

It is examples such as this which Historic England hopes a change in tax regime will make less frequent. The organisation’s latest research highlights areas where the nation’s building stock is under-performing.

It argues, for instance, that abandoned textile mills in West Yorkshire alone could be overhauled and converted into more than 11,000 new homes. Other analysis shows that refurbishing an empty Victorian terraced home, of which there are many thousands around the country, would produce 13  times less embodied carbon than building a new, similarly sized home.

According to the research, when a typical Victorian terraced house is refurbished and retrofitted, it will emit less carbon by 2050 than a new building – if the whole-life carbon emissions of buildings, including demolition, are considered.

A reduction in the VAT rate would help to incentivise best practice in repair and maintenance

Ben Cowell, director general of Historic Houses and chair of the Historic Environment Forum, which hailed the wider research as ‘game-changing’, says: ‘Since the vast majority of our built heritage is cared for by private owners, a reduction in the VAT rate would help to incentivise best practice in repair and maintenance. Upgrading and renovating existing buildings means we can control the carbon expended through new construction activity, while ensuring a future for the heritage all around us.’

However, while Historic England might be on the right track, other areas of the heritage industry are lagging behind. Dow Jones co-founder Biba Dow recently wrote that she was still hitting significant barriers on historic retrofits such as the ‘onerous consultation processes’ led by risk-averse heritage bodies.

‘This can be crippling to a project,’ says Dow, whose practice regularly works on adapting existing, often historic, buildings, such as the Grade I-listed St Mary Magdalene church in Paddington.

St mary magdalene paddington

St mary magdalene paddington

Source: Anthony Coleman

St Mary Magdalene, Paddington, church extension by Dow Jones

She adds: ‘Change and renewal can be so positive, and yet development, particularly in sensitive settings, is often viewed as inherently negative by consultee bodies. I would love to see the debate lifted from degrees of harm to the potential for benefit – social, cultural, economic and definitely architectural.’

According to conservationists, statutory protection for the 400,000 structures on the National Heritage List for England remains in place to stop cowboy builders destroying the integrity of historical structures.

This may be true, but the world is changing. And, while former AIA president Carl Elefante is right when he says ‘the greenest building is the one that already exists’, those buildings, as Historic England will admit, will need to be renewed to meet more exacting energy standards. 

Rebecca Burrows, an associate and heritage team leader at Purcell, believes the current heritage policies and legislation, primarily the Planning (Listed Building and Conservation Area) Act from 1990 , have been slow to adapt to the climate emergency and today’s greater emphasis on placemaking.

Burrows thinks the definition of conservation needs to evolve, and quickly. She says: ‘Protecting our architecture for future generations – as the national list for England seeks to do – rather than supporting its use for today, has become a flawed concept in the 21st century. It may even be argued that stasis now will harm the legacy we hand down to future generations.’ 

Burrows, whose practice is also among the nearly 200 practices, individuals and companies to back the AJ’s RetroFirst campaign, adds: ‘Why should heritage assets be seen as static architecture for those lucky enough to view and enjoy from afar, rather than their value be put to good use today by developing and adapting to meet all human needs?’ 

We cannot bury our heads in the sand over these two global concerns

Stephen Levrant, director of London and Manchester-based Heritage Architecture, agrees that the legislation, drafted in the ‘very different’ 1980s, no longer works. He says: ‘[The acts] do not recognise the housing crisis and the need for zero carbon attainment and we cannot bury our heads in the sand over these two global concerns.’  

Erratic interpretation of the law and planning policy makes the situation more exasperating. A regular bone of contention for architects and developers is the conflicting stances taken by differing authorities on fitting energy-efficient double or triple glazing to historic buildings. In north London one homeowner, having commissioned eco-savvy practice Burwell Deakins Architects on the refurbishment of his 1885 house, was shocked when Camden Council rejected an application to install better-performing fenestration.

He told the AJ: ‘At a time when reduction of carbon emissions and fossil fuels has become a major ecological target, it seems absolutely crazy for planning departments not to support the overall reduction of carbon footprints by supporting house insulation. 

‘It is my prediction that planning departments currently rejecting double glazing in listed buildings will require it in a few years’ time.’

Levrant is also exasperated by the contradictory stances often taken by local authority conservation officers, who, he claims, generally take an unjustifiably restrictive approach.

He says: ‘We have the very common situation where one officer of a council will rail against a new dormer window in an unlisted building, not in a conservation area, that cannot even be seen from the public realm, while another officer in the same council allows wholesale demolition of a listed building behind a preserved façade.’

Such decision-making can lead to some strange results, such as the widely criticised student housing block by Stephen George and Partners in London, with its standalone locally listed brick warehouse frontage masking a lumpen grey box behind.

Unbridled facadism, caledonian road, n7 (geograph 5265516)

Unbridled facadism, caledonian road, n7 (geograph 5265516)

Source: Mike Quinn

465 Caledonian Road, by Stephen George and Partners

In this case the local authority had actually rejected the scheme – an eventual winner of the 2013 Carbuncle Cup – only for it to be waved through by the planning inspector. Such façadism seems hard to square with a sincere drive to lower carbon emissions.     

However, Adam Wilkinson, director of Edinburgh World Heritage, rejects the criticism of listing. He says the system ‘gives an incredibly useful set of tools’, which encourages a ‘thoughtful approach to managing the architectural and historic significance of our old buildings’. He adds: ‘Of course, this might result in some reuse proposals being blocked if there is not adequate discussion before putting in for consent, but there is always room for dialogue.’

Wilkinson says the charity has recently been involved at pre-planning stage with a student housing scheme in Edinburgh which only retained a couple of external walls. He says: ‘This was rejected – and rightly so. After greater discussion, the developer changed course and found that office use would meet their objectives and those of the conservation legislation.’

Either way, as calls for action on the climate crisis grow louder, there will need to be trade-offs. Matthew Mckeague, chief executive of the Architectural Heritage Fund, says compromises will have to be made if the wider environmental agenda is to be tackled.

There is a need to look at how the process can be made less complex and costly

He says: ‘There is a need to look at how the process can be made less complex and costly. But that should look at the whole process, not just one part of it. It is likely to lead to a need to make decisions that involve trade-offs – some of which might not be welcome – but that is something we need a broader discussion of.’ 

As for Historic England, the custodian of the list, it insists statutory heritage protection does not mean ‘a building should be artificially preserved or cannot be changed’. The body says that, since 2004, its approach has been guided by the principles of what it calls Constructive Conservation. It claims that it is a ‘well-informed, flexible and collaborative’ method, which aims to ‘best manage’ how old buildings can change. It says it has also produced a suite of technical advice and guidance on improving energy efficiency in historic buildings.

Historic England seems to be flying the flag for responsible adaptations that can improve energy performance, though it warns that ‘doing the wrong thing can have a long-term impact on a building’s condition and the people who use it’.

Compromises are likely to be something that local authorities and conservation groups must face up to in the coming years. Brave decisions will need to be made.  As a start, giving more financial wriggle-room to developers through a VAT shake-up may help avoid many of the bargain-basement schemes. These use the most basic materials and cheapest design talent and cause the biggest headaches for everyone.


Darren Bray, director, Studio B.A.D Architects

Those of us who feel passionate about reuse and reimagining existing buildings for our clients in light of the climate change emergency face challenges each week on a whole range of projects, from existing churches and banks to former civic buildings. The current challenges around VAT and listed status make projects difficult to manage and deliver.

On many of these projects, budgets and timescales are the greatest barrier to unlocking potential and adding value for clients. Faced with 20 per cent VAT and, in some cases, difficult listed statuses to navigate on existing buildings we are trying to reuse and upgrade, it gives little scope to deliver both a retrofit solution with an inspiring reimagined piece of interior or architecture.

There needs to be some serious collective joined-up thinking and approach by both the government and Historic England. This would enable clients and architects to take the retrofit route as a first option. Otherwise the industry will continue to ignore and demolish much of the existing building stock.

Catherine Burd, co-founder Burd Haward Architects

It is incredibly encouraging there is a hint that VAT might be reduced or abolished on works to existing buildings, and that retaining buildings where there is a clear social, historical or environmental benefit should start to be the norm.

Architects need to be given the space to be allowed to be creative 

But how decisions on retention or works to existing buildings are made and assessed need to be really carefully judged. I’d be keen to avoid further legislative red tape at planning stage - especially if judgements made based on the generally negative terminology in the NPPF that we find when working with significant historic buildings. Apart from ’recognising public benefi’t, the language used is predominantly negative and about harm, for instance causing ’substantial harm, less than substantial harm’ and so on.

I prefer to be optimistic when working with existing buildings, where our input can be transformatory. Basically, working with existing buildings and fabric is brilliant but challenging, and architects need to be given the space to be allowed to be creative when working with them.

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Readers' comments (1)

  • It would be useful for the authors to have mentioned that the cultural heritage sector across the globe is mobilising for ambitious climate action. The UK is leading in some areas of this mobilisation and has work to do in other to meet global best practices for support by hertiage authorities for achievement of the Paris Agreement goals. A blueprint for this mobilisation can be found the 2019 report of the Interntional Council on Mounuments and Sites, "The Future of Our Pasts: Engaging Cultural Heritage in Climate Action." Section 3.2 of the report sets out 8 priority areas of attention for heritage authorities on the topic "Carbon Mitigation Through Demand-Side Measures: Built Environment". Subsection 3.2.5 is on "Reducing Operational Carbon of Older and Historic Buildings."

    The preface to that overall Mitigation section of the report states:

    "Limiting temperature rise to 1.5˚C will, the IPCC said, require widespread and rapid transitions across energy, land, industrial, urban and other systems, as well as across technologies and geographies. They expressed the view that there is no precedent in documented history for this rate of change at the scale required, and without these transformations,limiting warming to 1.5˚C while achieving Sustainable Development will be exceedingly difficult, if not impossible.

    Accomplishing Decarbonisation in tandem with achieving Sustainable Development goals requires pursuit of Climate-resilient Development Pathways that strengthen Sustainable Development in both rural and urban contexts while addressing the ethical and equitable aspects of the deep societal transformation needed to limit Global Warming to 1.5°C.

    In many cases, win-win strategies that showcase the Social Value of Mitigation Activities (SVMA) associated with cultural heritage-based Mitigation Measures will be available. In other cases, real and perceived tensions between GhG mitigation and heritage Conservation will need to be mediated.

    This Division seeks a wide perspective on the intersections between the core competencies and considerations of cultural heritage Conservation and Greenhouse Gas mitigation goals, which include:..."

    It would be interesting to know AJ's view of the adequacy of the framework this report provides, and then also its estimation about whether heritage authorities in any given region are aspiring to implement the report's recommendations. More here: https://www.icomos.org/en/77-articles-en-francais/59522-icomos-releases-future-of-our-pasts-report-to-increase-engagement-of-cultural-heritage-in-climate-action

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