Doing the right thing by unlocking the hidden opportunities within existing property

Proposal to 12 new affordable houses in place of abandoned garages

Proposal to 12 new affordable houses in place of abandoned garages

I believe the construction industry is about to wake up to its own inconvenient truth. Refurbishment, adaption, infill is more sustainable, more stimulating, more popular with the public and more financially viable than many new shiny identikit developer neighborhoods.

First let’s share an inconvenient fact. Concrete is responsible for 8% of CO2 global emissions. Much of this is used in new buildings. This is almost the same all the emissions as the USA. With a United Nations report outlining there is only 11 and a half years to reduce emissions before the situation is irretrievable, it is time to get serious about how much and how we use this material. Using existing buildings in better and smarter ways is a key part of how we can reduce concrete productions. Will Hurst and Richard Waite at the Architect’s Journal understand this. Read their commentary on reports by Chatham House and follow them on twitter. It’s compelling.

Roof top extensions on existing buildings, infill in awkward gaps between buildings, development of neglected backland sites are all good ways of intensifying our existing buildings. We need to get inventive with these spaces. We can relieve the pressures on the greenbelt and greenfield land. We can make lively shared areas with human interaction and streetlife in existing properties. We can prevent continuous and bland sprawl. We just need to adjust our mindset.

Existing buildings are where both physical and social infrastructure already exists. Working on housing developments in council or Housing Association ownership, we are developing gaps between blocks, blank end walls, redundant old laundry buildings and abandoned garages. Our practice is working on several projects to develop, intensify and adapt these. Contemporary interventions can invigorate these places. It also makes them safer. Investment and freshness generates pride in existing communities.

Proposal to create a cooking & gardening school within an abandoned walled garden

Proposal to create a cooking & gardening school within an abandoned walled garden

Let’s talk money and property valuations.

New buildings have zero VAT and refurbishment has 20%. Many people are looking to the government to flip these VAT tariffs. If this was to be flipped then perhaps many development appraisals would be shifted in favour of greener refurbishment options. It is not unfair. The government has many other tax, planning and legislative systems for encouraging low carbon in the areas of transport, energy use and even plastic bags. Why not in the property industry?

There is another inconvenient truth and this also affects our pockets. New build valuations are easy for the industry to calculate values. We do this by making comparisons to other similar properties in similar streets and neighbourhoods. Valuing individual and quirky properties that have been adapted and are unusual is harder to calculate. However our experience shows that in the market place, buyers do put their money behind places with history, places that have character, places that are specific and that are unique. The value generated from adapting an existing building, rather than redevelopment is crucial.

Two of our projects that are adapting, infilling and extending existing London housing will be part of the NLA’s research paper “Public Housing: a London renaissance” published in May 2019. Click here if you want to see their research.