Retrofit: today’s new process will be tomorrow’s best practice

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  • Retrofit: today’s new process will be tomorrow’s best practice
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Heather Evans


Perspective 2023 vol 1
Market Insights

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At the beginning of 2023, the UK Government published ‘Mission Zero’. This independent report was commissioned to review the UK government’s approach to delivering its net zero target, aimed at identifying how the UK could meet its net zero commitments in an affordable and efficient manner, specifically one that is “pro-business, pro-enterprise and pro-growth”.

The review was clear in its findings – ‘we must grab this opportunity, there is no future economy but a green economy’. With no less than 129 recommendations the report was urging that we need to go faster and further on decarbonisation.

The decarbonisation agenda – and more importantly how to deliver it – is clearly a global issue. At the end of COP26, over 90% of the world’s GDP had committed to a net zero target but now the time is for swift action to move towards achieving the net zero goal.

The UK has its own particular challenge, and the clock is ticking. Not only was it the first G7 country to sign a commitment to have net zero emissions by 2050 but it also has the challenge of an old, energy inefficient estate. In fact, it is estimated there are 27 million domestic properties in the UK and the majority require energy efficiency improvements (Source: Retrofit Academy). So, the decarbonisation and retrofit of existing buildings to avoid stranded assets* and increase energy efficiency and performance, is a huge part in helping to meet net zero goals.

In the UK, legislation has driven a retrofit framework with robust standards PAS 2035 and PAS2036 to measure the process and a requirement for those undertaking the work to be accredited. Retrofit not only includes improving energy efficiency, reducing energy usage and moving away from fossil fuels, it also covers upgrading properties be they domestic, commercial or public and providing better living and working conditions. 

The built environment industry is focused on upskilling and training the supply chain and creating sustainable solutions but arguably this needs rapidly increasing public and private investment, to keep up with the ever-growing demand. 

Retrofit is only set to grow

Not only is there a huge demand to retrofit existing assets but ultimately new construction will start to slow down and in some regions of the world, land supply is rapidly dwindling. The global investment market is turning its attention to the benefits that result from retrofit; improving the operating performance and increasing energy efficiency across a portfolio of assets can produce huge savings. Improving existing assets supports a sustainable business strategy and the all important Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) metrics as it avoids buildings becoming classed as stranded assets.

An end has a start

We are actively encouraging our clients to think about retrofit at the start of project, at inception or business case stage. There are many lessons we can learn from retrofit, if we consider the 60-year life span of a building at the design stage. For example, considering future flexibility and space demand, designing for deconstruction and considering future technology within the present day designs. We are seeing space being put aside for heat pumps even though not needed now and specifications for logistics sheds with the space for photovoltaic panels which might be installed later. This does require a shift in mind set, to move from the short term to really consider the long term impact and how this can be mitigated. Considering each project, programme and strategy from a whole life value perspective is key to ensuring long term sustainability and value creation beyond the traditional drivers of time cost and quality to incorporate planet and people too.

Fabric first not technology first

It is really encouraging to see the major strides in innovation and technology around energy efficiency solutions such as air source heating, energy monitoring sensors and façade treatments, particularly as we continue to deal with escalating energy costs. However, a challenge can be avoiding shortcut decisions to invest in technology rather than addressing the basic structure of a building. Without a fabric first approach, it’s easy to just heat the atmosphere as energy leaks through an inefficient building. That’s why a holistic approach is critical for long term gains. 

Data, data and more data

The more asset data we have, the more analysis can be made on the options available for decarbonisation – from deciding on which buildings to upgrade to making procurement decisions. Retrofit is a fast-moving sector and with new processes and innovations being trialled and piloted this enables the ability to incorporate new solutions throughout an assets lifetime that weren’t possible at the outset. Monitoring and analysing data throughout a project are essential to enable holistic decision making, and market engagement can ensure the vision of installing new technology such as installing photovoltaic panels can be met by the reality of the supply chain being able to deliver.

The gathering of data, and more importantly its analysis, is hugely beneficial to the built environment industry as a whole. Gathering data such as embodied carbon enables robust benchmarking; the more we know about embodied carbon, the more we know what good looks like and the more we can inform progress. We have delivered embodied carbon benchmarking across the whole of UK national grocery retailer Tesco’s estate, building on our involvement across its development and engineering projects nationally.

Retrofit addresses climate change adaptions as well

Although energy efficiency is synonymous with retrofit, the process is really much broader than that. Retrofit addresses wider climatic change issues. For example, in the UK where we are now experiencing more extreme weather, when remedial work is carried out around window replacements, solar shading is often added. In building new car parks, additional drainage and vegetation needs to be considered to help with flooding. 

With net zero targets in place, we know what we must achieve and by when. Taking a proactive approach whether looking at a single building or a placemaking scheme and learning the lessons from retrofit today will help us to build a better future.

*Stranded assets can refer to assets that are no longer attractive for sale, lease or operation due to carbon and energy performance.