Heritage buildings in 2020! What will become of them? Can they be thermally upgraded to suit our modern lifestyle? If they can’t ‘move with the times’ then maybe their time is up!?

The World Economic Forum got underway with as broad a spectrum of speakers as has ever been seen: Time 2019 Person of the Year Greta Thunberg holding audience with equal, if not greater, gravitas as President Trump. We are in unchartered environmentally polluted waters, and be in no doubt the construction industry plays its part. The RIBA Journal recently stated, ‘…the design, construction, occupation, maintenance and demolition of the world’s built environment consumes about 50% of all raw materials annually’ (October 2019, p.43). It went on to say that in the UK the industry creates 45% of UK CO2 emissions (ibid).

There are many areas architects can use their role as designers and specification writers to influence the  impact their designs have upon CO2 emissions, although the wider picture is very complicated, and what seems like the most environmentally and cost-effective way to build is more often than not, not! A very shocking example was given by the architect Kate Darby talking at a SPAB lecture in November. Kate talked about the renovation of her listed-by-curtilage building – the award-winning Croft Lodge Studio – and the very painful decision she had to make to not harvest trees on their land for use for the building, but instead to use a nearby timber merchant where the timber had most definitely been imported: a decision based on cost. In a nutshell this reflects a common dis-empowerment clients and designers can feel at the arm’s length of a construction industry which is truly a ‘beast’ set in its ways.

Existing buildings are effectively carbon stores, and if you are such an owner you could consider yourself a guardian of its resource: protect it for all its worth (in carbon terms quite high). There is an obvious barrier in the UK, though, ‘We pay 20 per cent VAT on most forms of refurbishment and renovation and typically between 0 per cent and 5 per cent on embodied carbon-guzzling new build’ (Architect’s Journal, Sept 12th 2019). The Architect’s Journal launched a #RetroFirst campaign in 2019 to highlight the benefits of reusing existing buildings. The campaign has three demands:

  1. TAX: Cut VAT rate on refurbishment, repair and maintenance from 20 per cent to 5 per cent
  2. POLICY: Promote the reuse of existing building stock and reclaimed construction material by introducing new clauses into planning guidance and the building regs
  3. PROCUREMENT: Stimulate the circular economy and support a whole-life carbon approach in construction by insisting that all publicly funded project look to retrofit solutions first

Heritage Revival’s Claire Truman  signed a petition in 2018 by the Listed Property Owner’s Club to lobby government for a reduction in VAT from 20 per cent to 5 per cent for repairs and approved alterations to listed buildings. This more recent initiative by the Architect’s Journal is for the benefit of all existing buildings – which would impact all heritage buildings – of construction prior to 1919. It is clearly important for the reduction to UK emissions for heritage building owners to be able to invest in their properties on a level playing field to new-build and Heritage Revival will continue to press for change.