Why ‘Retrofirst’ is right
Walk the streets of any of our great North West towns and cities and you’re surrounded by examples of old industrial buildings that were cotton mills, textile mills and warehouses. These buildings, steeped in our region’s history, are packed full of character. They are a reminder of our heritage and also a reminder of real potential, ripe for re-use to create the next chapter of their story. There has always been a strong conservation argument for re-purposing these building structures. The climate emergency with its need for society to be much more carbon prudent, means there must now be a very strong reason not to re-use these structures.
This week, we signed up to support Architect Journal’s ‘Retrofirst’ campaign. This campaign, supported by many architects and developers, calls for Government action in tax, policy and planning areas to boost retrofit and refurbishment in order to slash carbon emissions. Our support of this campaign follows the publication of our ‘Civic Engineers Climate Charter.’ Our charter outlines how climate sensitivity and its protection have always been a founding feature of our practice, demonstrated by the fact we have always actively pursued a sustainable design agenda. Our portfolio is packed with examples of projects across the UK that demonstrate our ‘Retrofirst’ credentials; from engineering the redevelopment of the iconic listed Park Hill estate in Sheffield for Urban Splash, through to re-use of spectacular buildings such as Chancery House in Liverpool and various mills and warehouses in Piccadilly Basin. So many buildings that have had new life breathed into them and brought together the new and the old.
So, how can ensuring we turn to ‘Retrofirst’ help us address the climate emergency we face? To reach carbon neutrality by 2030 as an industry, put simply we need to use 33% less steel and concrete. Re-using and adapting existing structures, as a priority over demolition and replacement is key to achieving this and engineers have an important part to play. Adapting and re-using involves us delving forensically into the structure’s history, understanding its original uses, how this may have evolved, and its strengths and weaknesses. Structural intervention is often necessary in order to rescue and convert buildings for modern use, but this needs to be proportionate. It may sometimes be necessary to remove parts of weaker structure, or structures within an overall group in order to successfully re-purpose the whole. This is an important principle of successful and commercially viable conservation (and different to preservation), and often leads to creative solutions, swinging the argument in favour of retaining and re-using, rather than demolish and replace.
If, as engineers, we are involved early enough in appraising a building for potential re-use, we can aim for minimal structural intervention by working ‘with the grain’ of the structure . It enables us to explore re-using elements and materials thereby expending less embodied carbon. This is good for the climate, and good for the evolution of our towns and cities. It gives building structures the chance for another chapter, and that’s why we’ll always look at ‘Retrofirst.’
Real change often only happens when regulations require. Is that what is needed to get industry to truly prioritise climate change and sustainable materials?
It's been one year since various climate emergency groups such as Engineers Declare and Architects Declare were established.