RetroFirst Campaign Calls to End the Construction Industry's 'Dirty Little Secret'

A new campaign aims to raise the visibility of renovation and retrofitting.


Architects Journal

RetroFirst is a campaign, sponsored by the British Magazine Architects' Journal, promoting the reuse of existing buildings rather than their demolition and replacement.

A lot of energy is used and carbon emitted in making a building. That's why it is considered "embodied" energy or carbon, even though it is already in the atmosphere with the building is occupied. When you knock a building down and replace it, more energy is used and carbon emitted that would not have been had the building been renovated.

That's why Treehugger has always said it's time to ban demolition. RetroFirst is a little more subtle. But as Will Hurst, managing editor of Architects' Journal notes, the system favors demolition:

"Demolition is the construction industry’s dirty secret. Despite all the declarations of climate emergency and talk of a green recovery, it is propped up by outdated rules and taxes and great swathes of our towns and cities are currently earmarked for destruction. If the government really means to “Build Back Better” it must recognise that conservation of buildings is now a climate issue and introduce reforms to ensure that bulldozing buildings is an absolute last resort."

Architects' Journal has made a short film with George Clarke, a well-known British TV presenter, explaining the problems in trying to renovate instead of building new. A very big one is that there is a Value Added Tax (VAT) of 20% on everything that goes into a renovation, but new construction is exempt to promote the construction of new housing. But no such break exists if you are creating or upgrading in a renovation. The film also demonstrates how wasteful this is, with 50,000 buildings lost to demolition in the United Kingdom every year.

North America has not been immune to waves of demolition and clearances, often to make way for new highways or parking lots. Our favorite hobbyhorse has been the demolition of the Union Carbide Building by JP Morgan Chase, who retrofitted it to LEED Platinum just a decade ago, and is being replaced with a new Foster + Partners tower that's 40% larger. Treehugger previously calculated the replacement of its 2.4 million square feet would generate upfront emissions of 64,070 metric tonnes. And of course, Foster + Partners is a supporter of the RetroFirst campaign.

The tax structure in the U.S. and Canada also favors demolition, because one can write off depreciation, a portion of the value of a building, every year. If you sell a building for more than you paid for it, then the depreciation can be "recaptured" in taxes, so often it makes more sense to demolish the building and sell an empty lot. No doubt JP Morgan Chase has figured there is a lot more depreciation to be had from a new building than there was from the old one,

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Architects Journal

The Architects' Journal notes that "one reason construction consumes so much is because it is based on a wasteful economic model which often involves tearing down existing structures and buildings, disposing of the resulting material in a haphazard fashion, and rebuilding from scratch."

"Architects work in a problematic sector of our economy. Worldwide, the construction industry consumes almost all the planet’s cement, 26 percent of aluminium output, 50 percent of steel production and 25 percent of all plastics. Because of the way it gobbles up energy and resources, the industry’s carbon emissions are sky-high."

This is why the RetroFirst campaign is so important, and why we need a similar one in North America that looks at the economic model that makes demolition so common and profitable.

Treehugger has had many posts suggesting it's time to ban demolition and design for deconstruction. We have quoted Carl Elefante the greenest building is the one already standing but, as Hurst notes, just measuring carbon isn't enough. We have to look at tax policies. We have to look at zoning policies that make it possible to knock down perfectly good buildings for new ones twice as large.

And finally, we have to put a value on embodied carbon, which is almost completely ignored in codes and building standards—acknowledge it, regulate it, tax it, or properly offset it.