Last month, MPs urged developers to refurbish buildings rather than demolishing and rebuilding them wherever possible, citing environmental factors. It’s true that refurbishing an existing building will have a lower carbon footprint than completely rebuilding it, in terms of the project itself, but is that the only thing that should be taken into account?
The fact of the matter is that, while quick wins might feel good, short sightedness is what’s caused the climate crisis that humanity faces today. A new structure, made to last and designed in an environmentally conscious way will almost always be the greener option if you look beyond the construction phase and towards the future.
The key, as with most things in life and business, is balance. There will be projects where refurbishment is a sensible option, but we must not kid ourselves that it is inherently the best approach from an environmental perspective. One size rarely fits all and in an industry with as many factors and moving parts as construction, nuance is required.
An old building with “green additions” such as solar panels or a carbon-sucking green roof, will be an improvement on what was there before but will not compare to brand-new, purpose-built structure which has been designed with the environment in mind every step of the way.
Perhaps that is the answer. The construction industry seems to have at long last woken up to the realities of climate change and our own contribution to its causes and solutions, but for many it still seems to be a box ticking exercise rather than a genuine priority. If all buildings can be designed putting the environment first, then we will soon see a generation of carbon-negative buildings sprouting up across the country.
It’s also worth noting that the demolition phase of a project could and should be a veritable goldmine in terms of recovering materials which can be either used in that same project’s rebuild or recycled elsewhere, thus reducing the waste which environmental groups are rightly concerned about.
“Refurbish, don’t rebuild” is a convenient soundbite but fails to take into account the myriad of factors which make a construction project viable, worthwhile, and beneficial to a host of stakeholders – the local and wider environment included.
We suggest a more nuanced, if slightly less catchy, alternative:
“Refurbish, if that’s what turns out to be best for the environment whilst still meeting the essential requirements of the regeneration of a property or area. Demolishing and rebuilding will probably have a greater initial carbon footprint but can ensure that the resultant structure is more efficient and therefore more environmentally friendly in the long run.”