RetroFirst: A New Campaign From British Architectural Magazine to Promote Retrofit and Renovation

Screen capture. Architects Journal

The upfront carbon emissions from replacing existing buildings now are as big as operating emissions. We have to stop this now.

For years on TreeHugger we have been banging on about about demolition, renovation and reuse. Sometimes it feels like banging our heads against the wall. But it seems that the idea is catching on; at the Architects' Journal, an expensive British magazine so important that is the only journal that ever refused me a press subscription (am I bitter?), Will Hurst introduces RetroFirst, a new campaign to promote reuse in the built environment. He writes:

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. According to the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), of the 200 million tonnes of waste generated in Britain annually, 63 per cent is construction debris.
CC BY 4.0. 270 Park Avenue being demolished, July 25, 2019/ AEMoreira042281 on Wikipedia

270 Park Avenue being demolished, July 25, 2019/ AEMoreira042281 on Wikipedia/CC BY 4.0

I have long argued for renovation and reuse from a historic preservation perspective, but also an embodied carbon perspective (or upfront carbon as I prefer to call it), most recently complaining about 270 Park Avenue in New York as the poster child. Hurst concurs:

Demolition isn’t just an environmental problem. It is frequently undesirable on social and economic grounds. According to Anne Power, emeritus professor of social policy at the London School of Economics, demolition is both costly and unpopular, stoking opposition to development among the general public. Retrofit of existing buildings, on the other hand, is cost-effective and generally less controversial, because it conserves and enhances existing places and neighbourhoods. As for carbon emissions, retrofit makes sense because of the substantial embodied energy savings made in repurposing existing buildings, compared with the ultra-high embodied energy costs of demolition and rebuild.

Hurst points out that much of this is driven by tax considerations; in the UK people pay a 20 percent Value Added Tax on renovations but between zero and five percent on new construction. Every country has its own weird conditions; in North America, developers get depreciation or capital cost allowances that let them write off a portion of the value of their buildings every year. But the value of property keeps going up, so if they sell the building, there will be "recapture" of all that depreciation, so they demolish the building and sell an empty lot. Tax laws are driving demolition.

Hurst calls for changes in the laws. He writes:

It doesn’t have to be this way. And, in light of the climate emergency and the UK’s legal commitment to a net-zero economy by 2050, it cannot remain this way. The AJ’s RetroFirst 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.
Three demands

Architects Journal/Screen capture

The Architects' Journal is going to be making this a major campaign over the next few months and "will investigate these three areas – taxation, policy and procurement – to refine and expand upon our RetroFirst demands before formally submitting them." Architects everywhere could learn from this and emulate it. I hope they continue to not wrap a paywall around it, as this is important stuff. Read on at Architects Journal.