Existing buildings - re-use and recycle

2019 brought the climate crisis into worldwide focus, and with UK building operations accounting for approximately 30% of the country’s emissions, tackling climate change has become impossible for the property industry to ignore. With the Government’s target to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, a focus on sustainability is very much on the agenda.

Whilst measures are in place to ensure that new developments meet environmental targets, a key challenge for the industry is how to deal with the built environment that already exists.

A recent report by Historic England ‘There’s no place like old homes: Re-use and Recycle to Reduce Carbon’ urges buildings to be recycled and reused, rather than demolished and rebuilt, to help tackle climate change. Early research indicates that thoughtful adaptation of old buildings in the right way could reduce CO₂ emissions by more than 60%.

The findings of the study reports that when a typical Victorian terrace is sympathetically refurbished and retrofitted, it will emit less carbon by 2050 than a newly constructed building, but only if the whole life carbon of the building is considered, including demolition. According to the report, by not taking into account carbon emissions already embodied in existing buildings, the entire carbon emissions of new builds are underestimated.

The report also calls for a lower VAT rate to refurbish buildings. Currently construction costs on refurbishments carry a compulsory 20% VAT charge compared with a 0% rate for new builds. In some cases this makes it more expensive to adapt older buildings to make them more efficient than demolishing and rebuilding them. Tax incentives are needed to encourage developers to rebuild rather than demolish.

Repair rather than rebuild is the focus, and with the reduction of the UK’s carbon footprint in mind, the infrastructure challenge that existing buildings pose in light of net-zero carbon targets will need to be addressed. Refurbishment to enable existing buildings to meet green targets, improve energy efficiency and environmental performance is required.

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