Wrightstyle lends its support to a campaign by Architects’ Journal to rethink the value of old buildings. Jane Embury, director, explains why.
The government recently announced £5 billion of investment into the construction sector.
While we welcome that investment, it’s unlikely to kickstart the kind of recovery that the government is looking for.
It seems also to be an investment geared towards the housing sector, with plans to speed up planning applications.
While we agree that sensible planning regulations should be simplified to ensure that building projects are given the go-ahead, the rush to build anything should be guarded against.
We are all too familiar with the beauty of small villages being compromised with poorly-designed housing schemes.
We understand that it makes economic sense for housebuilders to have only limited house designs. But is it appropriate to build the same house at different ends of the country?
That may one unintended consequence if the government’s knee-jerk plans are not thought though.
The overriding principle must be that local planners have the last word on local planning applications. The only exception would be, as now, national interest. That could be, for example, a new railway line of power station.
While new housing is important, so too is the existing amenity of our communities. So too the integrity of local planning bodies to determine what is appropriate for the communities they represent.
The government’s proposed approach seems to shift the onus towards approving residential planning applications.
That could be regardless of local opinion or the judgement of local planning authorities.
The result could be that things built in haste may be ours to regret for a long time.
But there is another aspect to the government’s construction plans that need careful thought. Because, all too often, there is no incentive to preserve the old.
Particularly on former brown-field sites, it’s often cheaper to flatten everything and start again.
That shouldn’t be the case because old buildings can, and should, be repurposed whenever possible.
Not only is it about preserving the past, but encouraging a more environmentally-friendly way of building for the future.
After all, a great deal of carbon is emitted from the creation of steel, cement and bricks for new buildings.
That move towards repurposing old buildings has created a campaign by Architects’ Journal. It’s supported by no less than 14 Stirling Prize Winners.
There has long been debate about the environmental advantages of demolishing old buildings and replacing them with well-insulated new ones.
But 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 opened.
The RICS estimates that it’s even higher for residential buildings – at 51%.
On those calculations, it might be decades before a new building pays back the carbon debt of its construction.
This, of course, at a time when we all know that carbon emissions must be reduced as a matter of international climate emergency.
That’s why we support Architects’ Journal because it shines a spotlight on an aspect of the construction sector that rarely receives the attention it deserves.
The journal has gone further to give evidence to the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee (EAC).
That evidence looks at the difference between operational emissions from heating and cooling a building and embodied emissions from creating construction materials.
It wants the government to change VAT rules, making it more attractive to refurbish a building rather than demolish it and start again.
The government, of course, has said that it has no plans to review the VAT treatment of construction.
Also, ministers have recently said they would ease planning rules for owners wanting to demolish offices and replace them with new-build homes.
However, the Architects’ Journal evidence has been reviewed by the EAC, and its chair, Philip Dunne MP, has said that “prioritising retrofitting can offer huge benefits.”
Those benefits include energy efficiency and the creation of green jobs.
We understand that building for the future should also involve preserving and repurposing the past.
In our rush to restart the economy, simply building anything isn’t the long-term answer. That route will only create long-term mediocrity.
And, as the Architects’ Journal makes clear, will do less than nothing for our heritage or achieving a low carbon economy.
Photo: The Fish and Coal Building, near King’s Cross station, London: an old railway building repurposed for office space, with advanced systems from Wrightstyle.