Improving Existing Buildings

BEFS Policy and Advocacy Officer, Ailsa Macfarlane, reflects on discussions on how to improve and use existing building stock at the recent event Carbon Neutral Edinburgh 2050.

The perspectives on building maintenance are multi-faceted, and the Parliamentary Working Group has the potential for real progress on this issue.

That said, sometimes we need to take a step back and consider the bigger picture, the much bigger picture – and how our actions can contribute to positive changes.

Last night (20th June) BEFS were delighted to support and attend Transition Edinburgh’s Carbon Neutral Edinburgh 2050 event at the City Chambers. Immediately prior to this event was an exceptionally well attended AGM, which discussed Transition Edinburgh’s activities over the past year – these ranged from Festival and Food initiatives, to the launch of Zero Carbon Edinburgh, and the potential for a pilot home improvement programme with Changeworks.

Initially we heard from some excellent speakers:

We gained perspectives from Cllr. Neil Gardiner (City of Edinburgh Council) – who discussed Edinburgh’s Local Development Plan (LDP2) and how the city could, and should, develop based on a plan-led system. Prof. Cliff Hague (Chair, Cockburn Association) made it clear that not only do we need more data (where and how much CO2 is produced) but that a full life-cycle approach is key – refurbishment could be a ‘quick win’ to aid the reductions necessary by 2050. Lastly, we heard a provocation from Prof. Sandy Halliday (Gaia Research). She took us through a whistle stop tour of Urban Ecology principles, reminded us that every city cannot survive without its hinterland, and showed the audience a range of inspiring examples from places where green design, and new ways of living, are flourishing: Malmo, Berlin, Tubingen, Zurich, Perth, Portobello!

The discussions then split into smaller round-tables, our topic was: Refurbishment/Upgrading existing buildings. The group was extremely knowledgeable and engaged, with representatives from; large-construction working with heritage buildings, a social landlord, energy efficiency solution organisations, an architect, retrofitting specialists, and an energy efficiency modelling professional.

With around 25% of CO2 emissions relating to buildings and industry globally, and 80% of our building stock already existing in the UK; it is clear that the site specific; person, and building, health appropriate; changes we can make to our existing stock can not only provide more homes, but warmer and healthier homes, schools, and commercial spaces. Ultimately helping to provide a built environment which has a less negative environmental impact on our planet.

The discussion around the topic was wide ranging – from how to approach different types, ages and tenures of buildings; to whether societal change needed legislative ‘push’. We were clear that educating more clearly to promote the financial, wellbeing, societal and environmental benefits of refurbishment would be central to the process of significant change by 2050. However, we also appreciated that this process had to be collaborative – and that the collaboration had to be at all levels, whether that was industry, local authority, neighbourhoods, or communities.

When feeding-back we heard from another table who had been wrestling with the same topic – their clarity was around: Creating a framework where refurbishment can flourish. This encompassed: tax rates (be that VAT or incentivisation); clarity/legislation around statutory obligations; land value capture (both how we value land, and how we charge for vacant properties) – these aspects led the table to suggest a national policy on refurbishment. This would support economies of scale, increasing affordability. (Our table had compared the process of retrofitting for energy efficiency in relation to the alterations made to properties on a wide-scale when modern sanitation was installed.)

Whilst any single event will not provide a solution, or multiple solutions – it is clear that there is growing appetite, awareness and emphasis on how we can improve and use our existing buildings to make them not only the homes, schools and workplaces of the future, but places that do less harm to our future.