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End the penalties on retrofit – demolition is costing us too much

Will Hurst
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Achieving a low-carbon sustainable construction industry means ending tax penalties on retrofit as a matter of urgency, says Will Hurst

This week, the AJ features an inspiring redevelopment project: an early-80s sorting office in Northampton cleverly converted into a school by the practice Architecture Initiative.

Continuing our highlighting of the need to shift the balance away from new build in favour of retrofit, Rob Wilson’s appraisal explains how this hulking building’s heavy concrete structure – designed to withstand IRA parcel bombs – meant it was simply too expensive for the local authority to knock down, paving the way for its valuable second life in education.

If construction is going to become a net-zero carbon industry, isn’t ‘too costly to demolish’ precisely the way we need to think about every decent building, given the embodied energy within them?

It’s a theme explored by Grimshaw’s new chairman Andrew Whalley in his column on the practice’s Brentford Homebase, another 80s building under threat from the wrecking ball, and one that Whalley himself worked on after graduating from the AA.

Unusually for a gardening and DIY shop, this striking building was designed to be an architectural landmark because it stands opposite Bannister Fletcher’s Gillette building at one end of the Great West Road’s ‘Golden Mile’ of classic 1930s industrial and commercial developments.

Whether down to admirable foresight or just common sense, Grimshaw also designed the building to be flexible enough to last. Yet now, at less than 40 years old, it’s in line to be flattened, ironically to make way for another superstore.

It should be incumbent on us all to consider the potential in existing structures

‘The long-span structure accommodates 4,180m² of column-free space, ideal for various adaptations,’ writes Whalley. ‘It should be incumbent on us all to consider the potential in existing structures before gravitating towards a shiny replacement.’

Sadly, even if everyone does consider this potential, the UK’s crazy fiscal rules help make shiny replacements the default option because knocking stuff down and starting again is simply cheaper. In France, the improvement, conversion and repair of many existing buildings attracts a reduced rate of VAT, yet here this sensible position is reversed.

We pay 20 per cent VAT on most forms of refurbishment and renovation and typically 5 per cent on energy-guzzling new build. The tax rules have been in effect so long that we barely register how distorted the market has become due to this powerful lever.

We cannot continue like this. Now the government is legally committed to achieving a net-zero economy by 2050, it’s high time it joined the dots by at least equalising VAT rates. Achieving a low-carbon sustainable construction industry means ending the penalties on retrofit as a matter of urgency.

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Readers' comments (1)

  • Sad to say, the dismal strategy in Brentford might be something to do with the corporate culture of the supermarket involved.
    Many years ago I was involved as clients' site representative on the construction of a joint venture development by this company in partnership with a multinational oil company.
    There was a serious accident during the demolition phase that only by the grace of God avoided serious injury or worse, but in the ensuing investigation the supermarket (the senior partner in the development) didn't want to know.
    I'd like to think that they've become less mercenary over subsequent years, but perhaps not.

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