Last month AJ editor Emily Booth wrote a detailed letter to ministers, saying that the campaign – which now has more than 250 industry backers – could form a key plank of the government’s plan to ‘build back better’ following the economic crisis caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
The letter was sent to chancellor Rishi Sunak as well as communities secretary Robert Jenrick, cabinet secretary Michael Gove and business secretary Alok Sharma, who is also chair of next year’s COP 26 climate summit.
While Sunak is set to unveil details of his economic recovery package on Wednesday, the government has now issued an initial response through the Treasury.
A government spokesperson called retrofitting ‘essential’ in the drive to become a net zero carbon economy.
They said: ‘We remain committed to being the first generation to leave the environment in a better condition than we inherited it.
’Retrofit of buildings is an essential part of the effort needed for the UK to achieve net zero carbon by 2050. That is why the government is driving over £6 billion of investment to bring as many houses as possible up to EPC C by 2035.
’We were the first major economy to commit to achieving net zero emissions by 2050 and want to ensure that the UK has the most ambitious environmental programme of any country on earth. Our emissions have already fallen by 43 per cent since 1990, and we are investing to deliver more offshore wind power than any other country and reduce emissions from homes and industry.’
As well as the £6 billion commitment to residential retrofitting, last year’s Conservative manifesto separately promised £9.2 billion to improve the energy efficiency of homes, schools and hospitals. However, the statement made no mention of this and there are reports that Boris Johnson’s chief adviser, Dominic Cummings, is pushing for this tranche of money to be spent on building new homes instead.
However, a new report from the Conservative Environment Network (CEN), shows an overwhelming majority of the British public wants measures that tackle pollution and climate change to be placed at the heart of the Chancellor’s recovery package this week.
The poll, carried out for CEN by Ipsos Mori, found that 67 per cent thought a recovery plan which failed to do this would be bad for the economy in the long run, while 69 per cent thought it would show that the government had the wrong priorities.
In terms of preferred types of infrastructure investments, over half of those surveyed said they wanted local schools, hospitals, and care homes to be made more energy-efficient and 49 per cent said the upgrading of the energy efficiency of older homes should be a priority.
Meanwhile, the RetroFirst campaign continues to gather support, with new names on board including engineer Buro Happold and think-tank Create Streets.
Rt Hon Rishi Sunak MP
Chancellor of the Exchequer
1 Horse Guards Road
London SW1A 2HQ
CC: Rt Hon Michael Gove MP, Rt Hon Robert Jenrick MP, Rt Hon Alok Sharma MP
18 June 2020
How should a green and resilient recovery work in practice?
As the UK looks to recover from the economic crisis caused by COVID 19, it was encouraging to hear the Prime Minister champion a ‘building back better’ approach. In line with that, we are putting forward the AJ RetroFirst campaign for the reuse of existing buildings. This has widespread support across the construction industry, and we are asking you and your cabinet colleagues to respond please by introducing reforms in three key areas – tax, policy and procurement as outlined below.
While one of these areas is VAT, there are options available for introducing these reforms in a low-cost or even a cost-neutral way while still significantly boosting the refurbishment and retrofit sector, thereby contributing to net zero targets and the economic recovery.
As part of our transition to a net zero economy and ahead of next year’s COP 26 summit, rapid reduction of carbon emissions is clearly key. However, a very significant opportunity for carbon reduction has so far been neglected – reducing our consumption of resources.
As the Government’s then chief scientific advisor Prof Sir Ian Boyd said last year, “emissions are a symptom of consumption and unless we reduce consumption, we’ll not reduce emissions.”
The answer then is to reuse what we have. In terms of reducing carbon emissions, this is low hanging fruit. And nowhere is the need for this more pressing than in the construction industry where the RetroFirst approach could go hand-in-hand with delivering the government’s election manifesto pledge to spend £9bn on improving the energy efficiency of homes, schools and hospitals.
A major retrofitting programme to achieve this pledge, underpinned by the reforms we propose, could rapidly ‘level up’ employment opportunities nationwide, creating 150,000 skilled and semi-skilled jobs to 2030 and boost consumer spending by delivering household savings of £7.5bn per year via energy bills. [i]
This is especially important since 80% of the buildings we will have in 2050 have already been built [ii] and because Britain currently has the oldest and coldest housing stock within the EU. [iii] Additionally, we may need to adapt or convert large numbers of commercial premises on the High Street left empty post-lockdown.
The AJ RetroFirst campaign and who’s backing it
We at the Architects’ Journal launched the campaign last September and its name refers to the notion of putting retrofitting and refurbishment first, avoiding the damaging and wasteful cycle of demolition and rebuild wherever possible.
We now have substantial backing from 185 architect practices including 14 winners of the RIBA Stirling Prize. The campaign is also being assisted by key contributor the Architects Climate Action Network (ACAN).
With widespread support across the industry, other RetroFirst supporters include:
- · Property developers and engineers including British Land, Canary Wharf Group and Arup
- · Professional organisations such as the RIBA, the RICS, the TCPA and the government-established Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission led by the late academic Sir Roger Scruton and Create Streets founder Nicholas Boys Smith
- · Individuals including architect and TV presenter George Clarke
Why is a different approach to construction necessary?
UK construction has much to be proud of. But it remains an exceptionally wasteful and carbon-intensive industry, responsible for around 45% of UK carbon emissions. [iv]
While much of this is generated by operational carbon (the day-to-day energy use of buildings), we have collectively paid little attention to the other side of the equation up until now – embodied carbon. This is the carbon expended in producing a building including the extraction and processing of raw materials and their transportation, assembly, ongoing maintenance and disposal.
According to the RICS, by practical completion stage, more than a third of the lifetime carbon emissions of a typical office development will already have been emitted, while the figure for residential is staggeringly, over half. [v]
How does COVID 19 come into this?
We have an opportunity at this moment because of the collective pause we have taken. As we examine how to rebuild our economy, we must not return to the ‘business-as-usual’ option of demolition and rebuild. Instead, our default approach must be based on conservation of the UK’s built fabric.
Of course, some of the country’s new homes, offices and retail spaces will need to be net zero new builds. But new homes and other new spaces can also be made of old buildings. As Carl Elefante, former president of the American Institute of Architects, said: ‘The greenest building is the one that already exists’.
This brings us to the RetroFirst campaign’s three requests to government to help industry achieve this transformation:
1. TAX: Cut VAT rate on refurbishment, repair and maintenance from 20 per cent to 5 per cent
It is perverse that the tax system incentivises brand-new construction (which often involves wasteful demolition) while punishing re-use and renewal despite their many social, economic and environmental benefits. Up until now the need to comply with EU regulations has often been offered as an excuse not to change this. Post Brexit, we will have the freedom to rebalance the system. [vi]
Our primary proposal could be achieved by rebalancing the tax burden which falls upon retrofit as opposed to new build following a calculation of the two sectors’ respective revenue contributions. However, there are other options available to the Treasury which would also help incentivise retrofit and refurbishment. [vii]
2. POLICY: Promote the reuse of existing building stock and reclaimed construction material by introducing new clauses into planning guidance and the building regs
3. PROCUREMENT: Insist all publicly funded projects look to retrofit solutions first, thereby stimulating the circular economy and supporting a whole-life carbon approach in construction
We propose the government should lead from the front on building reuse which would also help stimulate the market in retrofit products and skills. Since the public sector owns more than 260,000 properties and spends more than £20 billion a year on running costs [x] such a retrofitting drive could also achieve substantial cost savings.
If not now, then when?
Overall, we believe that adopting these RetroFirst reforms would help make the UK a true international leader on climate change and make our post-COVID economic strategy more effective and coherent.
Since we launched the campaign, we have published extensively on this subject including many case studies and in-depth features. These can be found at www.architectsjournal.co.uk/news/retrofirst
We would be more than happy to share further material with you and/or meet with you or your officials should that be helpful in order to take this important agenda forward.
We are copying this letter to several of your fellow cabinet ministers.
Emily Booth, Editor, The Architects’ Journal
RetroFirst campaign supporters
Built environment companies and organisations
- · 44 Consult
- · Anthropocene Architecture School
- · Architects’ Climate Action Network (ACAN)
- · Arup
- · Bath School of Design, Bath Spa University
- · British Land
- · Canary Wharf Group
- · Capital + Centric
- · Chapmanbdsp
- · Crosstree
- · Cundall
- · Edinburgh World Heritage
- · First Base
- · FORE
- · Hearth Historic Buildings Trust
- · Historic Environment Scotland
- · Hoare Lea
- · Jensen Hunt Design
- · London Waste & Recycling Board (LWARB)
- · Mann Williams
- · Max Fordham
- · MultiLateral Structural Design
- · New York University, London
- · Paradigm Land
- · Pavehall PLC
- · Price & Myers
- · Priestley Construction
- · Project Etopia
- · RIBA
- · RICS
- · SAVE Britain’s Heritage
- · Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (SPAB)
- · Spenbeck
- · Town & Country Planning Association (TCPA)
- · Trilogy Real Estate
- · The Twentieth Century Society
- · The Victorian Society
- · U+I
- · UK Green Building Council
- · Urban Splash
- · Useful Simple Trust
- · WSP
- · 3D Reid
- · 5th Studio
- · 50.8 Architecture & Interiors
- · AAB Architects
- · aad architects
- · ADP Architecture
- · Alison Brooks Architects
- · alma-nac
- · Amos Goldreich Architecture
- · Andris Berzins + Associates
- · Allford Hall Monaghan Morris (AHMM)
- · Allies and Morrison
- · Architectural Emporium
- · Architectural Thread
- · Architecture for London
- · Architecture Initiative
- · Architype
- · Aros Architects
- · Assael Architecture
- · Assorted Skills + Talents*
- · Atelier; Helen Brooks Architects
- · AWW
- · Barr Gazetas
- · BBM Sustainable Design
- · Belsize Architects
- · Ben Adams Architects
- · Benjamin Tindall Architects
- · Bennetts Associates
- · Boano Prišmontas
- · Brimelow McSweeney Architects
- · Bryden Wood
- · BuckleyGrayYeoman
- · Buttress
- · Caruso St John Architects
- · Child Graddon Lewis
- · Chris Dyson Architects
- · Circle Architecture
- · Clare Nash Architecture
- · CMA
- · Colman Architects
- · Connolly Wellingham Architects
- · Cousins and Cousins
- · Curl La Tourelle Head Architecture
- · Daria Wong Architects
- · Darling Associates
- · DarntonB3 Architecture
- · David Chipperfield Architects
- · Dennis Hellyar Architects
- · Devlin Architects
- · DLG Architects
- · DNA Architecture
- · Donald Insall Associates
- · Dow Jones Architects
- · Downs Merrifield Architects
- · Dress for the Weather
- · dRMM
- · Earle Architects
- · ECD Architects
- · ECE Architecture
- · e-gg
- · EPR Architects
- · Fearn Macpherson Chartered Architects
- · Featherstone Young
- · Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios
- · Feix&Merlin
- · Fletcher Priest
- · Foster + Partners
- · Freehaus
- · Gardner Stewart Architects
- · Gensler
- · Glenn Howells Architects
- · GLM
- · Goode Architecture
- · Gort Scott
- · gpad london
- · Gray Macpherson Architects
- · Grimshaw
- · Group Ginger
- · Halliday Clark Architects
- · HawkinsBrown
- · Haworth Tompkins
- · Heatherwick Studio
- · Henley Halebrown
- · Heritage Architecture
- · Hills & Co
- · Hopkins
- · HPA Architecture
- · HÛT
- · Hutchinson & Partners
- · Ian Ritchie Architects
- · Jestico + Whiles
- · John Gilbert Architects
- · John Robertson Architects
- · Jonathan Tuckey Design
- · JTP
- · Kendall Kingscott
- · Knott Architects
- · KR.eativ: Architects
- · Living Space Architects
- · LTS Architects
- · LYN Atelier
- · MAP Architecture
- · Märraum
- · MawsonKerr Architects
- · MAX Architects
- · McGinlay Bell
- · McMullan Studio
- · MICA Architects
- · Mike Daubney Architects
- · Mikhail Riches
- · Morris + Company
- · Morrow + Lorraine Architects
- · Moxon Architects
- · Morse Webb Architects
- · MTBA Associates, Ottawa, Canada
- · Murphy Associates
- · Napier Clarke
- · Neu Architects
- · New Practice
- · Nicola de Quincey architecture + conservation
- · Norman-Prahm Architects
- · O’Donnell + Tuomey
- · Outpost
- · Owen Ellis Architects
- · PagePark Architects
- · Parkes Poole Architects
- · Paul Testa Architecture
- · PDP London
- · Peak Architects
- · Penoyre & Prasad
- · Piercy & Company Architects
- · Pollard Thomas Edwards
- · PPIY Architects
- · Procter-Rihl
- · PRP
- · Purcell
- · Resi
- · RGP Architects
- · Robert Dye Architects
- · Robert Rhodes Architecture + Interiors
- · Robert Rowett Architectural Services
- · Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners
- · Ruth Butler Architects
- · Sarah Wigglesworth Architects
- · Scott Brownrigg
- · Selencky Parsons
- · ShedKM
- · Sheppard Robson Architects
- · Simone de Gale Architects
- · Simpson & Brown
- · Sjölander da Cruz Architects
- · Sow Space
- · Square One Architects
- · Stanton Williams
- · Stephen Taylor Architects
- · Steve Ritchie Partnership
- · Stiff + Trevillion Architects
- · Studio Basheva
- · Studio Bednarski
- · Studio Ben Allen
- · Studio DuB
- · Studio Egret West
- · Studio Polpo
- · Studio Seilern Architects
- · Studio Van Hoorebeek
- · Syndicate West Architects
- · Tate Hindle
- · Theis and Khan Architects
- · Thomas Robinson Architects
- · Tim Greatrex Architects
- · Tonic Architecture
- · Triangle Architects
- · Turn Architects
- · Type3 Studio
- · Ullmayer Sylvester Architects
- · Una Kaya Architects
- · Urban Fabric Architects
- · van Heyningen and Haward Architects
- · Whittaker Parsons
- · WilkinsonEyre
- · Wilson Mason
- · Witherford Watson Mann
- · Woodfield Brady Architects
- · Wren Architecture & Design
- · Zaha Hadid Architects
- · Clara Bagenal George, Elementa Consulting
- · George Clarke, architect and TV presenter
- · Emma Dent Coad, former MP for Kensington
- · Julie Godefroy, sustainability consultant
- · Loyd Grossman, chairman of The Royal Parks
- · Kelly Harrison, Heyne Tillett Steele
- · Joe Holyoak, architect and urban designer
- · J Jeffrey Keays, senior lecturer, school of architecture design & built environment, Nottingham Trent University
- · Walter Menteth, architect and procurement reform campaigner
- · Alice Moncaster, senior lecturer at School of Engineering and Innovation at The Open University
- · Lucy Mori, architect and business consultant
- · David Ness, adjunct professor at the School of Natural and Built Environments, University of South Australia
- · Paul O’Neil, Bryden Wood
- · Clare Richards, ft’work
- · Simon Sturgis, Targeting Zero
- · Professor Peter Walker, director of architecture and digital design, University of Salford
[i] Source: The Energy Efficiency Infrastructure Group’s Rebuilding for Resilience report.
[ii] Source: UK Green Building Council.
[iii] Source: 2014 ENTRANZE report Laying Down the Pathways to Nearly Zero-Energy Buildings.
[iv] Source: Technology Strategy Board (now Innovate UK).
[v] Historic England’s new report There’s No Place Like Old Homes: Reuse and Recycle to Reduce Carbon also found that, compared to refurbishing a traditional Victorian terrace, a new building of the same size produces up to 13 times more embodied carbon over its lifetime, equating to around 16.4 tonnes of CO₂, equivalent to the carbon produced by driving 300 times round the M25 in a large petrol car.
[vi] The UK could even now drop VAT on refurbishment to 0%, an option forbidden under EU rules.
[vii] One option might be to remove VAT only for ‘deep low carbon eco-retrofit’ projects, as a recent Change.org petition by architect Harry Paticas proposes. Alternatively, the Treasury might wish to combine its approach with the ‘levelling up’ agenda and provide grants to retrofit social housing specifically. This would contribute to our net zero target while also lowering the fuel bills of the poorest households.
[viii] Whole Life Carbon assessments could be mandated through the NPPF at pre-application and planning stage, a policy soon to be trialled on major developments in London (https://www.london.gov.uk/what-we-do/planning/implementing-london-plan/planning-guidance/whole-life-cycle-carbon-assessments-guidance-pre-consultation-draft). Further incentive could be created by amending the NPPF to insert a ‘presumption in favour of refurbishment’ as a subset of the ‘presumption in favour of sustainable development’. This could be bolstered by a requirement for any application proposing demolition of an existing building to demonstrate that reuse of the existing structure was first explored through a new ‘sequential test’ for prospective developments.
[ix] The Building Regulations could be reviewed to include a requirement for Whole Life Carbon Assessments. This was recommended in a 2019 report commissioned by the Committee on Climate Change, suggesting a five year period to allow the industry time to adapt, and this would tip the balance in favour of the widespread retention of existing structures. https://www.theccc.org.uk/publication/options-for-incorporating-embodied-and-sequestered-carbon-into-the-building-standards-framework-aecom/ Furthermore, a 2018 report by Bionova illustrates how embodied carbon policies are being implemented in multiple states in the USA, and in other countries such as France. As the report points out “Governments have also played a role in this development, implementing policies that work together with the marketplace players.” https://www.buildup.eu/en/practices/publications/embodied-carbon-review-embodied-carbon-reduction-100-regulations-and-rating
[x] Source: Cabinet Office