Refurb debate at Hawkins\Brown

Hawkins\Brown recently hosted a debate entitled ‘New tricks with old bricks’ during GreenSkyThinking week. The aim was to examine ‘current options, pressures and incentives’ that drive either refurbishment or redevelopment. An audience of about 40 architects, engineers and other building professionals gathered in the practice’s office to hear presentations by Hawkins\Brown’s Katie Finnie, David Bickle and Jason Martin on some of the practice’s recent projects, each illustrating a different typology relevant to the talk:

  • the Park Hill refurbishment in Sheffield, a story of bringing back to the city and community a Grade II-listed estate previously proposed for demolition

Park Hill

Image of existing Premier House. Photo: Google maps

The Terrace

  • Clapham Estate Regeneration, new build housing scheme for Peabody, targeting Code for Sustainable Homes Level 4. It completely replaces an existing 1930s development. This option was chosen in order to improve the connection of the estate with the neighbourhood, provide a higher number of flats, but at the same time increase the public space for the neighbourhood.

The presentations were followed by a lively discussion chaired by Lee Mallett (Urbik), who skilfully engaged the members of the panel: Dr James Thonger ( Associate Director at Arup Group Limited), Rob Watts (Director with Responsibility for Sustainability at Stanhope Plc), Liam Bond (Partner at Platform), Katharine Deas (Low Carbon Workplace) and Roger Hawkins (Hawkins\Brown).

The debate targeted the sensitive issue of refurb versus rebuild in current developments, where financial pressure and shortage of space tends to lead to the dismissal of the refurbishment option. There was a general consensus that ‘the common prejudice is that old buildings are not as environmentally friendly as new ones’, and that refurbishment needs to be ‘pushed up the agenda’.

James Thonger pointed out that from an investment point of view, it is cheaper to refurb, while Rob Watts highlighted the importance of learning the lessons from refurbishing existing building and applying them to new-build. Related to that, the panel members agreed on the need for POEs to understand how buildings actually perform. Since modelling usually covers only basic occupancies,  actual energy use tends to be a lot higher than predicted.  ’You can’t have low carbon buildings without low carbon users’ who can operate efficiently the systems installed.

Several incentives to refurbish were identified, such as the increased market value of a refurbished property compared to a non-refurb one, and subsidies like the feed-in tariff. However, constant changes in regulation mean investors ‘don’t see where they are going’ on long term. It was also pointed out that a better alternative to investing in renewables is spending the budget on the best energy efficient solutions (improving the fabric and using low energy systems).

On the other hand, it was argued that new build developments can provide an increased density and a better use of space. Whether doing a refurb or building anew, it is important to ‘get people involved’, improving awareness about actual energy costs as a key to change people’s behaviour.

Mallett summed up by pointing out that refurbishment does not need to be a second best option and that a key issue is having an overarching holistic approach to efficiency. There was a short Q&A session after which discussions continued til late in the evening, fuelled by drinks and snacks provided by Hawkins\Brown. Overall, a highly informative and engaging debate, so much so that at some point I completely forgot to take notes…

by Diana Dina, AJ sustainability intern

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