Why We Fight to Save Every Old Building

They are not all beautiful and charming, but because of the embodied carbon, we should always try.

Sugar Factory in Warsaw
Znin Sugar Factory, Warsaw.

Oni Studio va V2Com

A recent post arguing against the proposed demolition of a brutalist classic in Scotland drew a great deal of criticism in the comments and on Twitter. Even Treehugger's own Elizabeth Waddington, a sustainability consultant as well as a gardening expert, noted that "arguing that Cumbernauld Town Centre should be saved shows a complete lack of understanding of the reality on the ground. And also, a lack of understanding about the environmental costs of the massive retrofit that would be required." She continued:

"The most sustainable choice is, I agree, frequently to save rather than demolish. But in this instance, repair construction would almost certainly be more costly in environmental terms than starting fresh. And this is before you even consider the environmental gains that could come from a revitalised and sustainable town centre."

Waddington is in Scotland and I am not, and I must defer to her expertise and location. But I have an automatic reflexive reaction to the demolition of any building, particularly a brutalist one from the fifties and sixties. I will try to make my point with a look at the renovation of the Znin Sugar Factory in Warsaw, Poland.

Sugar factory Zinn
Znin Sugar Factory.

Oni Studio

It was arguably in far worse shape than the Cumbernauld Town Centre, and was designed for sugar production, not people. But people like the warmth of brick and apparently loathe the coolness of concrete. So even though the Town Centre actually had a program designed around people, it was too ugly to live.

Inteior sugar factory
Interior of sugar factory.

Nalewajk.pl via V2Com

Pipes, rusty exposed steel, old brick, what is there to love about this? Yet a building in far worse shape was beautifully converted into other uses and got a second life. So my first point is that people are letting their aversion to brutalism cloud their judgment. Because of the vast amounts of concrete that went into these brutalist buildings, they are the last of their kind; nobody could do this today. The loss of every one of them should be carefully considered.

mitigation graph
Mitigation Curves.

Robbie Andrew CC 4.0 using IPCC Data

The second reason we fight to save older buildings is far more important; it's because of the upfront carbon emitted in building the replacement for the demolished building. We have a carbon budget that we have to stay under to keep global heating below 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit (1.5 degrees Celsius) and every kilogram or pound of CO2 added to the atmosphere goes against this budget.

Development stages

World Green Building Council

This is why I reflexively say that the first thing we should do is not build anything, and the next is to make use of existing assets, or as the World Green Building Council put it, to "question the need to use materials at all, considering alternative strategies for delivering the desired function, such as increasing utilization of existing assets through renovation or reuse."

The other issue that comes out of that 1.5-degree mitigation curve that is rarely talked about is the "time value" of carbon. Because of that carbon budget or ceiling, carbon saved now is more valuable than carbon saved later. Upfront emissions actually matter a lot more than operating emissions because it is that big carbon burp happening now. As architect Larry Strain wrote,

"When we evaluate emission reduction strategies, there are two things to keep in mind: the amount of reduction, and when it happens. Because emissions are cumulative and because we have a limited amount of time to reduce them, carbon reductions now have more value than carbon reductions in the future. The next couple of decades are critical."

I am not alone in having to justify my defense of the Cumbernauld Town Centre. I learned about it from architectural historian Barnabas Calder, who has also received serious criticism for his call for its preservation. He admits that today it is a mess. In an article titled "What should we do with 'the ugliest building in Britain'?" in Architects Journal, Calder writes: "Many or most local residents understandably see the neglected, ugly remains as a failed experiment and a totem of systemic neglect of their economic and social ills. To many, demolition and replacement represents welcome, forward-looking investment in a town that certainly needs it, and has every right to it."

But he goes on to make the case that any replacement of this building would involve a lot of new concrete and a lot of new emissions. Surprisingly, he is the author of a book called "Raw Concrete: The Beauty of Brutalism," he considers that aspect to be of secondary importance.

"In the light of such clearly measurable, objective harm [from upfront carbon emissions], I’m willing to meet Cumbernauld’s haters halfway. It matters more that its immense concrete frame is reused, than that it continues to look like an important landmark of Brutalism. Retrofit this new town as heavily as you need to in order to make it work brilliantly for today’s needs. Extend it, insulate it, paint it, pedestrianise it. If it will make people love it and feel pride in it, you can even reface it in Classical columns (wood or stone, of course, to keep down the embodied carbon). But please, please, don’t waste thousands of years of carbon footprint just because you don’t find 1960s architecture pretty."
Hotel in sugar factory
Hoten in Znin Sugar Factory.


I am not yet as willing as Calder to compromise. Again, I look at the work of Marek Bulak and Piotr Grochowski in Warsaw, turning an old sugar factory into a marvel. For many years, people didn't much like old brick factories from the 1890s; they reminded them of harder times. The vast majority of them were lost and the few that are left become iconic urban landmarks. Who is to know whether Cumbernauld Town Centre might not one day be as iconic; we certainly won't find out if we just tear it down.