Firstly – another big thank you to Saint Gobain and ECD architects who sponsored our workshop ‘ Retrofit in practice what next?’ at the Industries of Architecture Conference at Newcastle University Nov 14th 2014. [a shorter version also appeared on the UCL Energy Institute's blog]
Our workshop was set against the background of the UK’s ~26.7 million existing dwellings and 1.8 million non-domestic buildings. The energy use of housing alone, which is mostly used to keep people warm in their homes, contributes to about 1/3rd of the UK’s carbon emissions. So there is a real urgency to reduce this energy use in buildings: thermal comfort of occupants, avoiding fuel poverty, aesthetic upgrades as part of building maintenance when buildings meet or exceed their intended lifespan, and ofcourse also stopping the reliance on burning fossil fuels to operate and construct these buildings, which are a finite resource and contribute to global warming.
The UK, and the rest of Europe needs to reduce the carbon emissions from this energy use to pretty much zero in the existing building stock by 2050, while new buildings will have to meet that standard much earlier (before 2020). To illustrate the scale of the problem: there are more existing buildings that need to be upgraded monthly to meet this target than there are new build buildings built yearly in the UK.
This brings with it a whole host of challenges, but also opportunities and this is what we really tried to capture in our workshop. Many of the contributions pointed towards solutions by raising relevant questions. By doing that, the presenters also touched on key issues that are related to the retrofit challenge.
Some topics that were raised included: project management, skills gaps, assessment methods, new models and tools, procurement, testing performance, community benefits, unintended consequences of retrofit, aesthetic consequences and approaches, and lets not forget the people who live and work in these buildings, and ofcourse the architect’s role in this process.
A quote from Sir Terry Farrell’s review of architecture and the built environment earlier this year for government touches on this last point. He stated: “An architect can add value to retrofitting by making efficient and holistic decisions on any scale of project, while understanding the broader conservation issues.”
Other questions that were raised were:
During discussion, it became clear that terms such as ‘retrofitting’, ‘conservation’ and ‘heritage’ have overlaps but are also not clearly defined at the moment.
For example what do we mean by conservation and heritage? What is the value in listed buildings we are trying to protect, is it the entire building or a specific aspect? And, if it is only part of a building that is ‘valued’, perhaps listed building consent – considered a barrier to upgrading buildings – may not be necessary at all?
What do we mean by retrofitting? Does retrofit mean just adding, or changing, or can it also mean taking away? Or any of these together? Does retrofitting include renewable technologies as add-ons such as solar panels on a roof? Or is retrofitting’s key concern the fabric upgrade?
Should we not touch a heritage building at all? Or is wrapping the building in a new protective, ‘conserving’ layer part of conservation, as it increases the durability of the building and retains, protects, ‘conserves’ its structure and purpose? In particular, which parts can we touch and which do we need to leave untouched? Should we make a clear distinction between old and added or should the added match the existing?
Ofcourse some of these issues are subjective, even emotive, but little discussed in depth so far in industry or academia. Perhaps as academics and practitioners it might be timely to consider more consciously the terminology, and our own conceptual approach to retrofitting. What are the consequences for the way we design? does the need for sustainable retrofit require us to critically re-examine some dearly held architectural concepts?
On the other hand, some argued, given the sheer scale and urgency of the task ahead for many buildings which are not listed, we might just need to get job done. If millions of housing are not of any significant quality or aesthetic, can we use the need for sustainable retrofit as an opportunity to enhance the architectural quality of our buildings?
So, there is a huge opportunity for architects, one where we can think creatively, innovatively and imaginatively and establish a new ‘environmental architecture poetic’, but architects, and architecture education, appear to be missing this significant and real opportunity. To quote Sir Terry Farrell again: “refurbishment and retrofitting had not been considered to be architectural issues, and these concerns still struggle to be accepted as legitimate by the architectural community”.
He also suggested that: “Architecture schools should include refurbishment and low-carbon retrofitting of old buildings in their curriculum and project work and conservation and heritage issues in course content.”
So, to close our summary, we hope that this is something we can all work towards changing, because retrofitting buildings is real. It is urgent. It is important. It offers great opportunity for a new architectural paradigm. Retrofitting is ‘what is next’ in architecture for our buildings. Basically it is here to stay, and we need all of you in academia/heritage/practitioners/industry involved. We need to want to be involved in this – for architecture to remain relevant to society.
Sofie Pelsmakers & Dr David Kroll, drawn from discussion with speakers listed here.
Download statement and speaker profiles as a PDF.
DECC UK National Energy Efficiency Action Plan (incl. building stock profiles)
BPIE data hub on EU's existing buildings & policies
CCC Review of potential for carbon savings from UK residential energy efficiency
Retrofit for future
SuperHomes case studies
BPIE RENOVATION STRATEGIES OF SELECTED EU COUNTRIES
STBA/DECC Responsible Retrofit of Traditional buildings report and guidance wheel and knowledge hub
Historic Scotland technical guides
English Housing Survey