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Join our RetroFirst campaign to make retrofit the default choice

Emily Booth
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With construction gobbling up resources at a phenomenal rate, retrofitting existing buildings needs to become the default option, writes Emily Booth

We need to put retrofit first. In the face of a climate emergency, we must all prioritise retrofit in our thinking, design and development. That’s why the AJ is launching its RetroFirst campaign to push for a greener approach to building … and why we’re inviting you to support it.

Why retrofit, specifically? Because construction gobbles up energy and resources at a phenomenal rate: cement, aluminium, steel, plastics and more. It is responsible for up to 40 per cent of the UK’s carbon emissions. The economic model of tearing down existing structures, chucking the debris and building from scratch is hugely wasteful. If we can retain more existing structures through intelligent retrofit, we’ll reduce carbon emissions and embodied energy costs, help conserve resources, and set buildings up for a longer life. We’ll also recognise the social value of buildings – the rich and varied fabric of our built world that is eroded in a default demolish/rebuild approach.

Where the choice is between demolishing to build new or retaining an existing structure, the default approach should be to retain and retrofit 

Currently, the financial and policy framework makes retrofit far more difficult than it should be. Maddeningly, it is usually cheaper to knock down buildings and build new ones in their place, rather than work with existing structures and retrofit them for new, greener use. Architects are working in a system that actively encourages the least sustainable building options.

Let’s be clear: this is not about being against new build per se. There will always be a requirement for new build, particularly with the intense pressure on housing; and, where new build is the best option, it should be as sustainable as possible. Likewise, not all existing structures can or should be saved. But where the choice is between demolishing an existing building to build new in its place, or retaining an existing structure, the default approach should be to retain and retrofit it.

Our RetroFirst campaign calls for a change in approach from government and policy-makers. It has three demands. First, tax: cut VAT on refurbishment, repair and maintenance from 20 per cent to 5 per cent. Second, policy: promote the reuse of existing building stock and reclaimed construction material by reforming the planning guidance and building regs. Third, procurement: government must lead by example, by insisting that all publicly funded projects look to retrofit solutions first. 

Over the next few months the AJ will be investigating these three areas to refine and expand them, before formally submitting them to government and legislators. Many architects are already supporting the campaign, as you’ll see from Will Hurst’s powerful article. So, we invite you to help drive the campaign forward by emailing us at retrofirst@emap.com and using the hashtag #retrofirst. Indeed, architects have a track record in designing creative and innovative retrofit schemes (just see this year’s AJ Retrofit Award winners for excellent examples) and have a responsibility to promote retrofit wherever possible. We welcome your feedback to help enable positive change.  

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

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