Want to cut carbon? Let's talk embodied culture.

By: Dan Gerrella

While thinking about the challenges of tackling embodied carbon and driving retrofit, it struck me that we need better storytelling - we need to talk about embodied culture.

Camden High Street David Bayliss

It was inspired by a session at the RICS UK Building Surveying Conference, which brought together viewpoints from funders and investors, architecture and consultancy.

The view was that decision-makers often favoured new-build schemes as they are deemed the easiest, lower risk route to lower operational and embodied carbon. Of course, this misses a huge opportunity, with a range of assets already built and sitting in prime locations.

When Enlai Hooi at Schmidt Hammer Lassen Architects shared a range of their projects that had taken old, unloved buildings and turned them into something special, the thought grabbed me – the discussion always ends up focused on business cases, net zero deadlines, and performance comparisons between schemes within the industry. Or, we focus on the very broad, macro issues, often utilising large datasets to show the negative impacts that we are having on the planet and the increase in climate-related risks and emergencies.

It is very data-driven and factual. But, we're missing the hearts and minds piece, which is the key to driving real change.

The Point MK CC Stone40
The Point in Milton Keynes is widely considered the first multiplex in the UK. It’s one of many unusual buildings that has been selected for demolition, rather than trying to repurpose it.

Tell the story

We need to expand the carbon messaging and talk about what I’ve coined ‘embodied culture’ – the stories, ideas and influences around our existing buildings and places. It’s the missing part of the drive to encourage people to adapt and reuse what we already have.

As Enlai said, we should all want “long-lasting, beautiful, flexible, high-quality buildings” that communicate the stories and cultures of the communities around them.

It’s an important need, and for those still looking to balance the books, it is becoming more attractive. Because while adapting existing buildings can be challenging, with labour and materials pricing remaining volatile, reviewing what we already have makes practical sense.

There are lots of buildings that fit the bill. Barbour ABI has published a report on what it calls 'stranded assets'. These are commercial buildings that are now unlettable because they have EPC ratings of F or G, following the introduction of the new Minimum Energy Efficiency Standards (MEES) in April. As many as 14% of commercial buildings are affected in some towns, with many of them in prime spots.

Oxford Street Kai Pilger
Oxford Street is home to an M&S which is earmarked for demolition. Campaigners are arguing that the building should be repurposed.

High streets in decline

If they stay empty, we’ll see a continued decline in our town centres. And, it won’t be discussions about investment portfolio values that save these places. It’ll be stories that connect people to them, whether looking back to the past or setting a vision for the future. Because buildings are there for the milestones in our lives. That old hospital is a place where someone was born. In that library, someone discovered their favourite author. When campaigners were trying to save the M&S on Oxford Street, perhaps some stories about the important moments in the lives of the people who went there would have helped (although the final decision hasn’t been made yet).

Rather than being too quick to knock these buildings down, we should spend some more time thinking about what we could do with them. Yes, there is risk, but these challenges will help drive innovation in the construction industry.

In his presentation, Moses Jenkins at Historic Scotland shared a perfect example - the story of a building in Stirling that had been a bank, hospital, library, offices and now a hotel. In 200 years, that building has been successfully adapted and is still going strong.

We talk often of sameness in our built environment, where repetitive architecture is the order of the day. Where one high street looks the same as another because it has the same chain stores and the same design. It seems to me that the opportunity is there for some more creativity with the places that we already have.

Barbour ABI Stranded Assets
Our client Barbour ABI recently published a report on 'stranded assets' - commercial buildings that are no longer fit for purpose and need upgrade works to comply with the new Minimum Energy Efficiency Standards (MEES).

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