Decarbonising construction – refurbish not rebuild

Mark Johnson
Survey Insight by Mark Johnson National Accounts Manager 30/09/2021

"Our biggest failure is that we build buildings, then we knock them down and throw them away. We must stop doing this." According to Prof Rebecca Lunn from Strathclyde University contributor to a new industry report


Decarbonising construction

Decarbonising construction: building a new net-zero

The National Engineering Policy Centre, led by the Royal Academy of Engineering, has published a report that states ‘a new way of thinking’ is required in the construction industry to meet the Governments Carbon Neutral strategy.

Decarbonising construction: building a new net-zero recommends that this must involve re-using existing buildings and recycling materials. Thereby reducing the impact of “embodied emissions”, the CO2 emitted when buildings and materials are originally made.


Architects’ Journal managing editor, Will Hurst, has said the government needs to change VAT rules if the construction industry is going to decarbonise successfully. Currently, the VAT on refurbishing and repairing a building is 20% whereas there is no VAT for new builds. This makes it cheaper to demolish and rebuild rather than refurbish and maintain.

Sometimes the different VAT level is the deciding factor in deciding if a building is destroyed or refurbished, according to Alex Green, from the British Property Federation.

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Architect's Journal Retrofit campaign

The industry report follows the 2019 Architects’ Journal RetroFirst campaign calling for Government incentives to encourage developers to re-furbish rather than build new, in turn stimulating the circular economy as the UK construction industry produces over 35% of the country’s total emissions.

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.


Refurbishing buildings requires accurate 3D models

The Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors (RICS) has estimated that 35% of the lifecycle carbon from a typical office development is emitted before the building is even opened and the figure for residential premises was 51%.

This is where BIM-ready surveys and accurate 3D models of existing buildings will prove essential. Prepared from non-intrusive and intrusive survey data these models will provide the insight that Architects and Engineers require to meet the challenges of re-purposing old building stock to a new energy-efficient purpose. The new digital technologies are the perfect solution to help the industry meet these challenges.

Our biggest failure is that we build buildings, then we knock them down and throw them away. We must stop doing this.

Prof Rebecca Lunn from Strathclyde University

UK must take the lead on decarbonising construction

The Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) has suggested that planning guidance should create a bias toward refurbishment if the UK is to be a “world leader in tackling climate change”.

If The Chartered Institution of Building Services Engineers’ Dr Julie Godefroy is right, the government will establish targets for the construction industry to move swiftly towards zero carbon, including embodied emissions, and if this is the case then as an industry we had better get ready and fast.


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