To Retrofit or Not to Retrofit: Existing Assets vs New Build Developments?

The built environment has arguably one of the toughest roads to net zero of any UK industry. Responsible for 25% of the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions, achieving carbon neutrality by 2050 will require a collective effort from government, businesses and individuals from within the sector. Greater Manchester has given itself a greater challenge yet, aiming for net zero by 2038.

Developers and property companies across Manchester are embracing this target, with exciting new commercial schemes such as Eden in New Bailey and HBD’s Island showing what can be accomplished through creative approaches to sustainable design. Achieving some of the toughest industry sustainability ratings, such as NABERS 5.5, these developments are paving the way for future commercial buildings across the city.

But the question for cities like Manchester isn’t whether they can continue growing this pipeline of impressive new net zero commercial spaces. They absolutely can – and no doubt will. Instead, the challenge is how they will tackle the energy performance of their huge stock of existing commercial assets.

Across Greater Manchester, it’s estimated that 95% of the region’s existing buildings are still likely to be in use by 2050.

The need to retrofit at scale was the topic of discussion at a Place North West panel event earlier this month. While there was no denying the impressive volume of sustainable and net zero schemes coming forward, the discussion about the city’s stranded assets brought forward interesting questions around the factors that influence whether a building is retrofitted or demolished altogether to make way for a new one.

It’s all too easy to focus on the energy performance of a new building once it’s complete. But retrofitting existing assets will almost always emit less carbon than demolishing and redeveloping a new commercial space. In fact, according to figures from Kinrise, it takes 239 years for a new build to pay back its emissions during construction, through its improved energy efficiency.

It’s not just businesses like Kinrise flying the flag for retrofit either. In a landmark ruling this month, Michael Gove blocked plans to demolish and redevelop Marks & Spencer’s Oxford Street flagship store, citing the embodied carbon and waste caused by the redevelopment.

The impact of Gove’s intervention could have a long-lasting impact on how redevelopment projects are viewed. It also paves the way for owners of existing commercial assets to better communicate the energy performance of their buildings to current and prospective tenants.

Demand for green – and typically new – office spaces continue to increase as business owners work to meet their own ESG targets. Yet existing buildings that have undergone sustainable retrofitting can meet business’ environmental goals in the same way that a new build can. Indeed, our very own PHA North team are based in Bloc, a renovated Bruntwood building which underwent extensive retrofitting work in 2021 to create an office environment with sustainability and biophilia at its heart.

Owners of existing commercial assets must therefore assess their communication strategies to make sure prospective tenants understand the green benefits their spaces offer. This knowledge sharing is critical if sustainable existing assets are to be viewed in the same light as sustainable new build developments. Communications should be an integral part of that.

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