Rebuild or reuse: Balancing the sustainability scales

Emma Hoskyn, UK Head of Sustainability, JLL reflects on the rebuild or reuse debate

The rebuild or reuse debate is not new, but it has been put under a much brighter spotlight in recent years – with an increased impetus to make buildings work for the future.

In short, there is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ answer to the question of whether to rebuild or reuse. What is important is that there is serious debate during the decision-making process as to which solution is the right solution, with several factors to take into consideration:

  • Retrofitting existing building stock, whenever possible, will be essential to meet market demand for net-zero carbon space given that 80% of buildings that will exist in 2050 have already been built. Huge amounts of energy are emitted during construction, and so reuse is considered the responsible course of action when considering the embodied carbon implications of new construction.
  • This cannot be looked at in isolation, however, and that is where using tools like the UKGBC’s Whole Life Carbon Roadmap can provide direction on what needs to be done. The conversation has turned from just focusing on operational (in-use) carbon emissions to understanding the embodied carbon associated with an existing versus a new build. The challenge is to balance these out so that carbon performance can be optimised across the whole life of the building.
Social considerations and market demand
  • Post-covid, how we interact with buildings is of greater concern to building owners, developers and users. There is increased focus on wellbeing and health for those using and living in them and a better understanding of the importance of our social interactions around buildings and in public spaces.
  • When considering the social needs of buildings, we need to understand whether existing buildings can be sufficiently adapted. There are likely constraints in some of the existing building stock which could tip the scales in favour of a new building, rather than retrofitting.
  • Our work impacts communities across the country and so the real estate industry is positioned to create spaces in a responsible, clean, fair and economically positive way – but how we do this needs to be planned at every stage of a development. The debate is not just a carbon debate, it’s also a socially led debate.
Financial and market drivers
  • Transitioning to a low carbon built environment aligns with the Government’s levelling up agenda but there remain questions around the policy, market and fiscal drivers that are needed to deliver this.
  • Unfortunately, many of the financial drivers point us towards new builds rather than retrofits – the fiscal policies, the costs of ‘non-traditional’ retrofit innovations, the cost of deconstruction, insurance premiums, no VAT on most new builds. But this doesn’t take into account the environmental and social costs. If we want a true and fair debate, we need to be able to integrate these costs (and value-adds) into our decision making.
  • There are also constraints on the market perceptions of what is feasible or acceptable. This includes what tenants expect (e.g. floor to ceiling heights), what are considered institutionally acceptable building components (at the point of sale), what the insurers will insure (e.g. timber frame construction) and what is standard building specifications (e.g. concrete frame). We need to challenge all of these to deliver a low-carbon built environment.

To rebuild or reuse is a worthy debate to be having – it is only by creating a space for these essential discussions that we can collaborate and share possibilities that will enable us to shape the future of real estate for a better world.