Back in 1970, Bob Giles, a UK architect, designed the Hammersmith & Fulham College, a redbrick building in London totaling 23,000 square meters. Now, the university wants to demolish it and instead build a newer one instead. Giles is trying to stop it, calling instead for an upgrade of the building.
But Giles isn’t alone in this fight. Architects across the UK are campaigning to protect and upgrade draughty buildings instead of knocking them down. And the reason isn’t related to architecture specifically but instead to the environment. New buildings emit a lot of carbon, they say, mostly in the production of the materials required.
The campaign was started by the initiative Architects’ Journal and has already been supported by 14 Stirling Prize winners (a British prize for excellence in architecture). Their main demands are to cut taxes on refurbishment, repair, and maintenance of buildings, promote the reuse of construction material, and stimulate the circular economy. Essentially, they want to reuse and retrofit buildings more than relying on constructing new ones.
In the past, there was a debate about whether it was more convenient for the climate to demolish an old building that consumed a lot of energy and build a new, better-insulated one in its place. Today, it’s starting to be viewed as a serious mistake due to the carbon emitted during the construction of a new building.
“This staggering fact has only been properly grasped in the construction industry relatively recently. We’ve got to stop mindlessly pulling buildings down,” Architects’ Journal managing editor Will Hurst told the BBC. “It’s crazy that the government actually incentivizes practices that create more carbon emissions.”
Worldwide, the construction industry consumes almost all the planet’s cement, 26% of its aluminum output, 50% of steel production, and 25% of all plastics. Because of the way it uses energy and resources, the industry’s carbon emissions are sky-high. In the UK, it produces between 35% and 40% of the country’s total emissions.
The Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors (RICS) estimates that 35% of the lifecycle carbon from a typical office development is emitted before the building is even complete. The figure is even higher for residential premises, calculated at 51%. This suggests it will take decades for new buildings to pay back their carbon debt.
The campaigners argued construction is based on a wasteful economic model. It involves tearing down existing structures and buildings, disposing of the resulting material in an indiscriminate way, and rebuilding from starch. More than 50,000 buildings are demolished every year in the UK, they estimated.
Retrofitting existing buildings, on the other hand, is more cost-effective and generally less controversial as it conserves and enhances existing places and neighborhoods, they claimed. It also makes sense for carbon emissions due to the substantial energy savings made in repurposing existing buildings.
“The 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,” the campaign’s platform reads.