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The Great Retrofit: an opportunity or a threat?

As a speaker at the recent Resource & Waste Management Expo 2023, I had the opportunity to address a captive audience of professionals in the recycling, resource, waste, and broader environmental services industry. During the event, I delved into the crucial topic of retrofitting and its profound impact on the waste management sector. In this article, I will share a summary of my presentation and the key takeaways that can transform the way we approach sustainability in the industry.

What is retrofitting? And why is it important?

In broad terms, retrofitting is any work on an existing building to improve its energy efficiency. Therefore, it includes improvements that make a building easier to heat or retain heat for longer, easier to cool down, and the implementation of renewable energies.

Retrofitting is relevant as it changes the current paradigm of demolishing and building anew.

This change of approach is significant in the present context. While historically 80% of a building’s carbon footprint would come from its use (operational carbon), nowadays 95% come from the materials used to erect that building (embodied carbon).

The concept of embodied carbon covers all carbon emissions that were required for constructing a building. This includes the carbon emissions arising from the extraction of raw materials, its manufacturing and refinement into construction materials, transportation, installation, and later demolition of the building.

The release of embodied carbon from the demolition of some buildings might be greater than any reduction that can be achieved with a brand-new building. Developers should take this into consideration.

The main benefits of retrofitting are the reduction in carbon emissions, reduction in energy cost due to the implementation of more efficient systems and assisting in the transition to Net Zero. This is why some developers, such as Grosvenor are preferring to retrofit instead of rebuilding.

The Marks & Spencer decision

This landmark decision from in July 2023 is the first high-profile case in which embodied carbon was one of the main reasons for refusal of a planning application.

M&S occupies flagship premises in Central London at 456-472 Oxford Street, which comprise three buildings constructed around 1930. M&S applied to demolish these buildings arguing that they were inefficient and instead proposed to build a new mixed use retail development.

Objectors contended that the demolition was wasteful and would release approximately 40,000 tonnes of CO2. The inspector recommended the scheme for approval. However, the application was called in by the Secretary of State (SoS) and despite the inspector’s recommendation, the application was rejected. The main reasons for refusal were the release of embodied carbon, design issues and heritage issues.

The SoS considered there should “generally be a strong presumption in favour of repurposing and reusing buildings”, which in the SoS’ opinion is reflected in the paragraph 152 of the NPPF: “planning system should support the transition to a low carbon future in a changing climate … [i]t should help to: shape places in ways that contribute to radical reductions in greenhouse gas emissions”. Therefore, M&S’ flagship building cannot be demolished and will have to be retrofitted instead.

The SoS’ decision embeds a retrofit first approach as a material planning consideration. This means a presumption in favour of repurposing and reusing buildings, unless there is a strong reason to justify demolition.

This new approach brings carbon calculations to the heart of a scheme’s viability and deliverability, as developers will need to consider alternatives as part of the design process, which will have a noticeable impact on future large-scale schemes. The decision also expands the in-practice application of circular economy themes and is aligned with the UK’s transition to net zero.

In August 2023, M&S launched a legal challenge against the decision above. While the legal proceedings have just started, we foresee this will be a landmark case that will likely go all the way to the Supreme Court.

Why is retrofitting important to the waste sector?

Construction, demolition and excavation sectors produce 68% of waste in the UK. It is imperative to reduce this percentage in order to meet the demands of net zero and the Environment Act 2021 targets.

The Environment Act 2021 set the following Resource efficiency target: “Reduce residual waste (excluding major mineral wastes) kg per capita by 50% by 2042 from 2019 levels.” It is proposed that this will be measured as a reduction from the 2019 level, which is estimated to be approximately 560 kg per capita.

While there is considerable work to do, it is also good to note that the waste sector produces 73% of the recycled aggregate which is used in construction. However, considering the new retrofit first approach, the waste sector should be wary of what could happen if the input reduces the output due to a reduction in demolition.

As mentioned in the M&S case, the new approach involves an expansion of the circular economy, and the waste sector should aim to be part of this transition. Doing so will involve having a greater scrutiny of carbon reduction, recycling rates and compliance with quality protocols.

How we can help

This transition will involve threats and opportunities, for which expert advice is recommended from early stages.

As experts in Environmental law, we are happy to support any waste sector stakeholders. For more information about Irwin Mitchell's Environmental services, please visit our website.