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Concrete, steel and plastic costs money and carbon. Time adds a further constraint. In the UK, landlords want to upgrade their property stock as remote working weakens demand for office space. Renovation and refurbishment offer a greener, less costly alternative to demolition and rebuilding.
The dispute at London’s 458 Oxford Street — owned by Marks and Spencer — highlights the developer dilemma. Campaigners are vehemently opposed to proposals to knock down and rebuild the mixed office and retail site. At stake is the Art Deco building’s cultural significance as well as environmental concerns. A decision on whether demolition can go ahead is due later this month.
The difference between rebuilding and refurbishment amounts to more than 30,000 tonnes of CO₂, according to Tom Scott of advisory Construction Carbon. That is the equivalent of 100,000 transatlantic flights. The calculation assumes the carbon footprint of the refit would amount to 9,000 tonnes. That compares with the developer’s own estimate of 40,000 tonnes of CO₂ for a new building, which includes demolition and removal.
To a building’s owner, the attraction of knocking it down lies in the possibility of putting a more valuable one in its place. Conversely, retrofitting may mean a smaller floor plan because of factors such as additional ducting.
If Marks and Spencer’s rebuild project goes ahead, it plans multiple extra floors including two in the basement. Net of construction costs, the finished building could be worth almost £300mn more, Scott thinks.
Smart developers put green credentials top of the list, notes Simon Sturgis of consultancy Targeting Zero. Environmental criteria have become an essential feature for prime space, driven by tenant demand and new energy efficiency standards. That is reflected in 90 per cent plus occupancy rates at British Land and Land Securities. Landlords are at risk of being left with stranded assets if they do not improve the environment performance of their spaces.
Decision-making about old office blocks involves trade-offs. Achieving high energy efficiency standards is easier when starting from scratch. But upgrading an existing building is usually a lot less carbon intensive than rebuilding. That should direct the debate over how best to decarbonise building stock.