Retrofit First Movement?

20 March 2020

by Oliver Wainwright via in relation to the case for ‘never demolishing another building’, a fascinating read about how things could look in the future when it comes to the potential for reusing our existing buildings. This is something that should be particularly relevant for the whole of the UK, amidst the housing shortage (or ‘crisis’ some may say) that we currently have.

As you may have gathered the crux of the piece discusses the use of current structures rather than demolition, because demolition can bring its own challenges and impacts such as eliminating waste and its associated processes contributing to CO2 emissions. Demountable type buildings are discussed to some extent, however this is something that should be easily achievable for every building or refurbishment in the form of ‘Operation and Maintenance’ manuals (O&M’s).  Speaking from experience, when embarking on due diligence surveys for any given asset, it is all too common that O&M’s are lost in the ether, which not only limits the survey report, but it could also inconvenience the asset for future alterations; or even demolition (not to mention incur additional time and cost for a client!)

As we know, digital capabilities are becoming more enhanced now with the likes of BIM (Building Information Management) and the like. Pick up any property magazine and/ or journal and no doubt you will be presented with headlines like ‘data is key’ or ‘the key to the future is data’ and so on, which bodes well for ensuring that O&M’s are actually looked after (retained in some way shape or form) and easily updated going forward.

But going back to the point, I, like many others, feel that there should be more of a drive to ‘retrofit first’, especially when there is good data to hand to help do so. Material wastage is a common reoccurring issue. When I look back at an article I published back in January 2019 about modular construction, I found that there was approximately 10-20% material wastage. However, according to online statistics today, it is reported that this percentage has risen further and looks more like 30%; quite the jump I am sure you’ll agree. Worryingly, the Guardian report indicates that waste production looks set to triple by 2100!

So retrofitting has got to be a good idea, right? How can we go about achieving that?

I completely agree that in the first instance there has to be a change in attitude and we have to at least consider waste as a material instead; data of which can all be integrated to BIM, O&M’s etc… It almost resembles the classic management model for when change occurs and the ideal requirement for the ‘buy-in’ of those involved who can help towards said change, whatever that may be. The key here being understanding the reasoning behind the new way/ change and why and benefits of working towards it.

Mr Wainwights article also references to the fact that the task of finding contractors/ firms who are willing to carefully dismantle buildings is a challenge in itself and from my experience I can sympathise with this having in the past set out to salvage certain items/ elements unsuccessfully, as a result of careless approaches. Of course, in some cases this can have (unnecessary) time and cost implications as a result. Some might say we are a throw-away society in that regard…

Housing Targets and Brownfield vs Greenfield

You could say that use of brownfield sites is closely linked along a retrofitting approach, in the sense that a site with a previous use can be utilised in a similar way that a property with a previous use can be utilised once more.

Case in point, a number of suburban areas within the M25 which adjoin greenbelt land are under threat of greenbelt/ space declassification to make way for new housing developments in response to housing demand…

Those who I have spoken to strongly agree that this just an ‘easy option’ for developers to work towards addressing housing crisis to some extent, with a prompt and decent profit of course.

However, with the ‘retrofit-first’ concept in mind, have Local Authorities and others really explored alternative options before an irreversible decision of developing greenbelt land is carried out? To most, this is a very important point because once greenbelt land is gone, its gone… The functions and reasons why we have greenbelt land in the first place should be reminded borne in mind. These may include (but not limited to); the protection of biodiversity and natural/ semi-natural environments, improving air quality, provision of access to the countryside for the public, educational and recreational opportunities, but probably most importantly to protect the character of communities, which would otherwise be absorbed by urban sprawl (i.e. providing a protective boundary between communities to stop them just becoming once large town or even city)

The greenbelt is there for a reason after all.

The question I have heard on repeat within the affected areas where greenbelt land is under treat sound like; ‘are we considering and using brownfield sites first?’ A good and valid question most would agree.

Yes, there is a housing shortage, but if we get rid of green areas the effect would essentially be an amalgamated urban mess, parking issues, pressure to schools, flood risk, transport systems and everything else that comes with it.

To put things into perspective a little, according to the New London Plan Policy H1 ‘Increasing Housing Supply’ the targets for net housing completions between 2019/20 – 2028/29 for said Local Authority is 29,490.

In comparison, following a very quick review of publicly available data for one London Local Authority in particular who are proposing to use greenbelt land to meet housing numbers reveal that they had nearly 100 brownfield categorised sites with ‘not-permissioned’ planning applications, this amounts to over 17,000 (maximum) net dwellings, which would obviously go a long way to meeting housing targets. If this is correct, then surely the greenbelt should be the last resort? This information comes from just one Local Authority, what can others Local Authorities bring to the table we wonder?

As with other boroughs, most people I have spoken to appreciate that there is a demand for housing and that there are new housing targets to meet. However development of green spaces, most people feel should be an absolute last resort and the general consensus is that Local Authorities who are under pressure to do this cannot demonstrate that utilisation of alternative sites (such as brownfield), have been exhausted as there are too many derelict and poorly used sites to be seen locally.

There is a lot a steak in regard to how we are addressing these issues and the options being considered will have to be carefully considered as the implications will be irreversible.

What the future might look like…

It’s always going to be a topical debate, but whatever the situation it should be paramount that all possible options should be explored and considered early on in order to ensure the best possible outcome for all. Interestingly. an example of this is also covered in Mr Wainwrights column which refers to the concept of renting building components rather than clients having to purchase, but we shall see what the future holds on that for the UK.

You can find Oliver Wainwrights article online at;

Do you have an asset where a retrofit first approach would be beneficial? If so then please get in touch to see where we can assist.

Article by Matt McGettigan MRICS MCIOB

Associate – Ridge and Partners LLP