Don't flatten, reimagine

Don't flatten, reimagine

by Marie-Louise Schembri

It is fair to say that there has never been more expectation and scrutiny of environmentally responsible behaviour within the built environment, with demolition making a case for villain of the year. In fact, this April the City of London announced requirements for all major developments to demonstrate the carbon impact of retention and demolition options before a planning application is made.

Also last April, NLA announced the shortlist to the 2023 edition of Don’t Move, Improve! for which I was invited to act as one of the judges, and found it to be an inadvertent lesson in the art of low-carbon retrofits.

What was most surprising to see in the award entries was the creativity applied to dealing with compromised sites, tight budgets and strict time pressures. Crucially, sustainability designs and decisions were being made outside the pressures of corporate reputation and net zero carbon governance, resulting in retrofit innovations (and necessities) such as:

  • Retaining existing nibs, avoiding the cost (and carbon) of structural steel beams
  • Challenging contractors to build a lightweight back extension, saving cost, time and reducing the carbon impact of foundations
  • Restoring the existing fabric and using colour concepts to reinvigorate family homes, demonstrating the power of light touch transformation
  • Tight budgets and material shortages leading to the use of recycled materials and offcuts.

Which made me wonder, why are we not applying the same rigour to retrofit in commercial development? Have we become so formulaic with our standards that we've stunted creative thinking? Why is there so much oversupply of office space in London while supply of "Grade A" space remains limited?

In this golden era of retrofit, we need to challenge the constraints that are increasing the rate of full building renewal in healthy economies. There is a sweet spot between over-designing and future flexibility, but in the first instance the market needs to flex to a new normal and embrace a space-type that tells a unique story. Don't Move, Improve! is a lesson for us all on how to challenge the counter-narrative to responsible, and exciting, design.

Marie-Louise Schembri

Marie-Louise Schembri, Sustainability Director, Hilson Moran