Rethinking the Labour Manifesto: Embracing Retrofit Over New Builds

Rethinking the Labour Manifesto: Embracing Retrofit Over New Builds
A drone surveys the progress on a house demolition

In light of the Labour government's pledge to build 1.5 million new homes to address the housing crisis, it's crucial to consider the environmental implications of such a strategy. While the promise of new homes seems like a direct solution, it overlooks the substantial carbon footprint associated with new construction.

The Carbon Cost of New Builds

This great article from Now Then Magazine highlights the environmental cost of new home construction in Sheffield. It argues that new builds significantly contribute to carbon emissions, challenging the sustainability goals that many cities, including Sheffield, aim to achieve. "The carbon emissions embedded in the construction process and the materials used are significant, making new builds a less viable option for a carbon-constrained future." The piece also emphasizes that "the carbon cost of demolishing existing buildings and constructing new ones can be twice as high as retrofitting them." Furthermore, it points out that "each new build home generates an average of 50 tonnes of CO2 during construction," a staggering figure that undermines efforts to reduce emissions.

We need to stop building new homes in Sheffield
Staying within our carbon budgets means embracing a transformative programme of retrofit that could breathe new life into our towns and cities, while providing high-quality homes for everyone.

Brilliant article by Sam Gregory

The Problem With 'New Towns'

There may be a deep misunderstanding at ministerial and adviser level of the infrastructure requirements of not just new building but the concept of 'new towns'. A Labour government will not wish to shackle itself to the immense cost of some of the mooted new development which leaves investment decisions in the hands of developers. They are famously resistant to one of the key requirements of any new building programme, creating affordable housing and social housing at scale. And let's not forget the environmental impact of this part of the proposals.

Learning from Germany: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle

Germany offers an alternative approach through its Reduce, Reuse, Recycle (RRR) policy in architecture made popular by Muck Petzet. This method emphasizes the importance of working with existing structures to meet modern needs while minimizing environmental impact. By focusing on retrofitting and reusing existing buildings, Germany manages to preserve the "grey" energy stored in these structures and reduce the need for new materials and energy-intensive construction processes.

Adopting the No Demolition Principle

This report from the Greater London Authority (GLA) from 2024 reveals that some councils are already adopting a no demolition principle, prioritizing the retention and retrofit of existing structures to minimize carbon emissions. The GLA's Whole Life-Cycle Carbon (WLC) Assessments compel builders to consider alternatives to demolition, such as retention and retrofit, if these options reduce the carbon footprint of a development. This policy has been recognized for its potential to significantly lower carbon emissions from construction activities. ANd with a likely regime change in the UK not far off, important ears are listening.

The National Retrofit Hub

The Role of the National Retrofit Hub

The National Retrofit Hub plays a pivotal role in supporting retrofit initiatives across the UK. Despite a policy vacuum at the central government level, the National Retrofit Hub is harnessing the collective will, ability, and direction of the retrofit community. It brings together architects, builders, eco-conscious surveyors, and other stakeholders to share expertise and best practices. The Hub's initiatives, such as the Regional Retrofit Skills Taskforce Checklist, are designed to bolster regional efforts in developing a skilled workforce for the retrofit sector, which is essential for achieving net zero emissions. By fostering collaboration and strategic planning at the regional level, the Hub empowers communities to drive meaningful change towards a sustainable future, we hope that many, many of the NRH members are close to the next government.

Why Retrofit and Reuse?

Retrofitting and reusing existing buildings can address housing needs while adhering to sustainability goals. This approach not only revitalizes existing urban areas but also leverages current infrastructure, reducing the overall carbon footprint. Additionally, refurbishing older buildings can enhance energy efficiency and adapt them to contemporary standards, contributing to long-term sustainability.

The Need for Policy Shift in the UK

The incumbent Labour government’s embedded policy of building new homes could benefit from integrating the German 3R approach. A formal policy shift towards retrofit and reuse could help the UK achieve its carbon zero targets more effectively. This strategy not only addresses the housing shortage but also ensures that environmental impacts are minimized.

Conclusion: Retrofit, Not New Build

Building new homes is not the sustainable answer to the housing crisis. Instead, adopting a retrofit and reuse policy, as demonstrated by Germany and supported by progressive councils in the UK, can provide a more environmentally friendly and effective solution. The UK must prioritize retrofitting existing structures to meet housing demands while aligning with its carbon reduction commitments.