Retrofit or replace? Central London’s property sector gets with the programme

Retrofit or replace? Central London’s property sector gets with the programme

The Hickman is an office building at the Square Mile end of Whitechapel Road, designed by architects DSDHA, developed by Great Portland Estates (GPE), and the first in the world to be given a platinum rating under the SmartScore “smart buildings” certification scheme, whose criteria include meeting high standards of sustainability.

An apt location, then, for a breakfast seminar organised by the London Property Alliance to discuss the findings of its report Retrofit First, Not Retrofit Only, a document which explores the principles and complexities of decarbonisation implied by its self-explanatory title.

The report’s author Kirsty Draper (top photo), head of sustainability with property agents JLL, told the gathering that “nearly all” the developers she spoke to “were very strong in their view of retrofit first” and that it was “the first consideration for nearly all the schemes we looked at”.

But she also underlined her wish to draw out why redevelopment can still be seen as a better option by some in some cases, to “understand some of the challenges involved in approaching that decision-making process” and to “provide some guidance about what is actually a really complex balancing act”.

Summarising her findings, Draper said the retrofitting option was generally at its most viable with buildings which had “a certain set of characteristics, for example sufficient load-bearing capacity, generous floor-to-ceiling height, large flexible floorplates and sufficient space to allow for retrofitting and new plant“. Getting access to architectural drawings and past investigations of the site in question was another big part of the equation. In general, buildings dating from the 1980s or 1990s were easier to deal with than those put up in the post-war decades.

Draper, who is also vice-chair of the sustainability and planning group of the Westminster Property Association, one of the LPA’s two component bodies, made a point of commending one of the report’s case study developments, the mixed-use 105 Victoria Street, which on the strength of a whole life carbon assessment (WLCA) decided redevelopment would be a better approach from that perspective than trying to retrofit the 1970s building previously on the site.

She closed by saying that prior to taking up her present role she had worked in central London development for 13 years, and seen innovation and change in the sector in the three years which “dwarfs” all that had come before. “On that basis I’m really excited to see what we as an industry can achieve,” she said.

Draper’s presentation was preceded by an opening address from Jules Pipe, Sadiq Khan’s Deputy Mayor for Planning, Regeneration and Skills, in which he welcomed the report’s insights into “a very complex subject” and its case studies which, he said, “bring to life the practical challenges as well as the opportunities that decarbonising our buildings offers”. Pipe (below) also urged the development sector to be “on the side of local authorities” in the capital as their planners and politicians learn to assess WLCAs from developers.

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The bulk of Pipe’s speech was devoted to City Hall’s contributions to the decarbonisation challenge and the Mayor’s wish, particularly through his London Plan, to “drive sustainability in the built environment” as a core part of his pursuit of London attaining Net Zero by 2023.

The London Plan requirement that WLCAs are made represents “the first time in the UK” that developers have had that responsibility placed on them, Pipe said, but stressed that although “it is clear that we need to calculate and reduce embodied carbon emissions, we shouldn’t forget about operational emissions [those generated once a completed building is in use]. We need to continue to make progress on both as part of a whole life cycle carbon approach to achieve Net Zero.”

Pipe warned that “energy efficiency in buildings can be anywhere from two to five times worse than predicted at design stages” and highlighted the Greater London Authority’s Be Seen energy monitoring guidance, which aims to help developers with, in its words, “bridging the ‘performance gap’ between design theory and actual energy use” and complying with the London Plan policy for minimising greenhouse gas emissions.

This, along with policies on the so-called circular economy which regard previously-used building materials as “resources rather than waste” and prioritising “the retention of existing structures above demolition where this is the more sustainable and appropriate approach” are part of what Pipe characterised as “trying to kick start a culture shift in planning and in the development industry to bring retrofit and reuse of existing buildings further up the agenda. It means we are using land and material in the most efficient and low carbon way”.

But in line with the LPA report he emphasised that “this is not about dogmatic decision making blocking comprehensive redevelopment. It’s about considering all reasonable options at the beginning and making decisions based on evidence. While it should be the starting point, retaining a building will not always be the right decision”.

He added: “In some cases, more sustainable outcomes can be achieved through careful dismantling and maximising the reuse of building materials and replacing the building with a more energy efficient one with lower operational carbon emissions.”

A panel chaired by GPE’s Andy White discussed the report’s contents in more detail. From a local authority standpoint, Westminster City Council’s Deirdra Armsby remarked on an unusual level of enthusiasm and “common purpose” about decarbonisation: “We’re definitely all on the same page.” With regulation still evolving and the relevant policy framework “still a bit soft”, she thought it encouraging that “everyone is voluntarily moving into the space of the best standard they can get to”.

James Wickham of real estate advisers Gerald Eve firmly concurred that “there will be some buildings which, with all the will in the world, can’t be retrofitted” and urged a full appreciation of the importance of continuing to invest in central London offices so “they do not depreciate and degrade over time. They are such an important part of the economic ecostructure, a key part of the economy.”

The capital’s heart is also “a fantastically carbon efficient place for economic activity to take place,” Wickham said, producing a tiny percentage of carbon emissions compared with its economic output. “We need to keep that in mind when we’re dealing with these very complex balancing issues with individual buildings.”


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Michael Meadows from British Land compared and contrasted two of his company’s projects: one in Westminster which has undergone a major refurbishment, including taking all the fossil fuel use out and adding air source heat pumps, and which needed planning consent only to add terraces, has been let to Virgin Media O2; the other, in the City, will see the replacement of a 1980s building “heavily constrained in terms of its floorplate” by a new building significantly shaped by tenants, including JLL, having their own Net Zero requirements.

Another of the LPA report’s case studies is The Bower in Old Street, 1960s brutalist towers, which have undergone a “deep retrofit” with some demolition and extension. Panellist Nikki Dibley from its developer Helical said the building was receptive to retrofitting in terms of space and other necessary qualities and added that even since the project was undertaken “things have moved on so quickly” in terms of the sector’s understanding of retrofit issues.

Dibley also remarked that the planning policies of individual boroughs can vary. “It’s so vital that policy marries up with practicality and viability,” she said. “It’s really important that policy makers and developers work together to ensure that the buildings within that borough are appealing and therefore attract tenants to the borough”.

Where do architects fit in to the mission? From the audience, Sheila Eilenberg from Brimelow McSweeney pointed out their vital importance, not least in acting as “coordinating hubs” with other designers, structural engineers and so on.

Invited to define architecture’s contribution, Dibley enthused about her interactions with practitioners, including their ability to come up with entirely original ideas and solutions. Meadows, joking that architects “hate being referred to as suppliers”, defined them as “partners in the design process” with all parties beneficially pushing each each and learning from the experience”.

The elephant in the Hickman room was the emblematic case of the Marks & Spencers branch at the Marble Arch end of Oxford Street and the huge debate about whether it should be retrofitted or replaced, currently being considered by a planning inspector. It was never going to get through the morning unnoticed.

James Wickham was the panellist who approached the contested beast, offering two thoughts: one, that it demonstrated the need for “a consistent regulatory environment” to enable such cases to be dealt with cleanly; two, that it would be far better if “really important planning decisions for London” were made in London “at regional level” rather than being passed upstairs to the secretary of state. He added: “M&S is perceived as having led the policy rather than led by policy and that’s the wrong direction of travel.”

Policy is seen as still a work in progress, but on the strength of this gathering London’s property sector and some key governance bodies are setting their own pace.

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1 Comment

  1. Geoff Cosson says:

    An interesting article, but surely bringing back into use the many empty buildings would be even more advantageous than building new ones?
    Does the Mayor have the power to tax owners of empty buildings sufficiently? Or to force owners to do something with then?
    I encourage people (Assembly members!),to ride around the City on the top deck of a bus, and count the boarded up and unused office blocks.
    Why are there so many former telephone exchanges sitting empty?

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