The Way of the Future – Planning for a Retrofit


The Build Better Now webinar on 'The Retrofit Opportunity' as part of COP26 has shed light on the need for retrofit on a national scale. Retrofitting or refurbishing involves modifications to existing buildings to suit current needs, whilst simultaneously improving energy efficiency.

Demolition and use of new materials and resources to build new buildings, however appealing, is no longer a preferred approach with the climate challenges we are facing. Refurbishment can greatly reduce the carbon lifecycle of a building over its entire lifespan, meaning the costs of running these refurbished buildings are considerably lower. A low carbon retrofit should aim to use less materials and recycle materials where possible.

The retrofit market is an opportunistic market, where developers can capitalise on historical buildings and end up with an energy compliant and more profitable building to manage and maintain. Many buildings are already failing to meet minimum energy efficient standards and will face a plethora of hurdles with the push for decarbonisation of the housing stock. We understand there are currently many barriers at both policy and societal level to refurbish buildings in a sustainable yet profitable manner. However, with the assistance of subsidies and incentives from the Government along with collaboration with local planning authorities, the retrofit market can take off.

Why do we need a national scale retrofit?

We all know the Government has announced its desire for a green industrial revolution to help deliver Net-Zero by 2050. Given that our homes contribute to 35% of energy in the UK and emit 20% of our greenhouse gas emissions, in order to reach Net-Zero we need to repurpose existing buildings. The UK has the oldest and least energy efficient homes in Europe. As 85% of our homes will still be in use by 2050, we must tackle this existing stock.

A large scale retrofit programme will not only cut emissions, it will create thousands of jobs, reduce inequalities and improve the health and wellbeing of residents.

Current Barriers 

There are currently very few financial incentives in place for developers to refurbish, so very little work has been done to update existing stock. There is also a fragmented industry with a large skills gap to efficiently retrofit. However, the Federation of Master Buildings (FMB) have suggested a promising retrofit strategy which aims to deliver a new home 'passport' to enable decarbonisation through fabric and zero carbon heating technologies, a bottom up approach to deliver a national umbrella of standards and workforce training. In addition, the Government has discussed the introduction of business rate exemptions and relief for eligible green technologies to support decarbonisation and from 2023, new business rates relief to support investment in property improvements.

The relationship between Planning and Retrofit

We can already see local planning authorities working together with developers. The Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership have successfully re-purposed a building in Cambridge for new offices, but originally faced the usual challenges to retrofit – a huge one being the listed status of the building. However, the developer successfully argued that it would be 'unconscionable' to use the out-dated and energy inefficient windows required by the planning conditions, in the light of the climate emergency we are facing. This is a great example of local planning authorities  willing to work with developers to allow repurposing of buildings and drive the path to Net-Zero. This will undoubtedly be seen more, given that 230 councils have declared a climate emergency.

Section 106 (S106) Agreements, which are legal agreements between local authorities and developers, are already including numerous obligations to provide renewable energy strategies and decarbonisation tactics. These obligations are imposed on developers to reduce their impact on a community and are becoming more onerous and environmentally focused. It is a commercially sound decision for developers to work alongside local authorities to produce viable and sustainable projects which the end users of developments increasingly want and expect to see.

We desperately need a balance to ensure the preservation of historic buildings, whilst bringing buildings into the 21st century. It's clear that developers need to quickly consider opportunities for upgrading and re-purposing existing stock, rather than simply building new buildings.

The Planning Team at Howard Kennedy is able to advise on the planning life-cycle of buildings and the retrofit opportunities available to ultimately assist developers to drive the path to Net-Zero. Stay tuned for more #COP26 commentary and insight.

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