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How retrofitting buildings for new use can help to achieve net-zero carbon targets

Ambitious net-zero carbon targets are going to require a new approach to the built environment. At Woodbourne Group, we’re embracing the challenge with our imaginative approach to regeneration.

We’re also backing entrepreneurs who are powering up the net-zero agenda and raising the bar when it comes to innovation through our Woodbourne Ventures initiative.

Net-zero targets are ambitious and if they’re to be met, then it’s going to require attention to be paid to our existing buildings. While new developments can have carbon-neutral targets embedded from the very beginning, how can we ensure our existing buildings are contributing to a more sustainable future? 

Green building framework 

The UK’s Green Building Council have been responsible for developing the UK’s net-zero carbon framework. This explains how the industry will achieve net-zero carbon for new and existing buildings by 2050. 

This framework provides goals for a building’s carbon emissions, how renewable energy usage can be used and what the options are for offsetting carbon. The framework also explores the whole life of a building and the emissions it generates. The carbon used during construction or renovation should be calculated, along with the carbon generated through the use of the building.

In practical terms, this means a reduction in energy demand and consumption should be prioritised over all other measures with on-site renewable energy, such as solar being maximised. Any additional energy required should be supplied via off-site renewables. Any remaining carbon should then be offset using a recognised offsetting framework and the number of offsets should be made publicly available.

Re-use where possible, rebuild sustainably where not 

As developers, we understand that sometimes buildings need to be demolished to allow for the building of new ones that are better suited to contemporary needs. Many old buildings, particularly ones built during the building boom of the mid-20th century, were not built to last or are difficult to bring up to modern standards.

Older buildings may lack suitable insulation and adequate ventilation, or fire suppression and containment measures that meet the current building fire regulations. Windows can need replacing to ensure the highest levels of energy efficiency, and heating systems may be outdated, inefficient and carbon hungry. Add to this the cost of cosmetic and aesthetic upgrades and renovation can quickly become financially unviable

Time hasn’t been kind to many buildings, and the cost of repurposing them for modern use while ensuring they meet the highest sustainability standards would be counterproductive. In some cases, new is better.

However, many older buildings can be viably repurposed in a realistic and affordable way with sustainability in mind. This may include adding insulation to walls and roofs, upgrading windows and doors to improve insulation and prevent drafts, and improving ventilation systems.

Renewable energy sources such as solar panels or wind turbines can also be installed to provide power for the building. In addition, water-efficient measures can be implemented, such as low-flow faucets and rainwater harvesting systems. Upgrading to energy-efficient lighting and appliances can also make a significant difference.

For many decades, office and commercial buildings weren’t built for longevity. This practice has been changing for some time, with older buildings being repurposed for new use, and ambitious UK net zero targets have given it a new impetus.

Net zero has forced all sectors of the economy to take a hard look at their emissions and increasingly, developers are now looking to create buildings that will last for a century, perhaps even longer. 

Net-zero – retrofitting old buildings for new use 

Approximately 40-45% of the UK’s carbon emissions come from buildings. This represents both a challenge and an opportunity as tackling the carbon footprint of our buildings could help us move quickly towards our net zero targets.

A significant proportion of the commercial building stock that will be in use in 2050 has already been built, which means that improvements cannot come from improving the efficiency of new buildings alone.

Reusing old buildings for new purposes often requires fewer resources than knocking them down and starting afresh. Existing structures already contain the embodied energy of the original construction, meaning that much of the energy that would have been used to produce new building materials is already embedded in the structure.

Some of the common upgrades include insulation of walls, roofs, and floors, upgrading or replacing windows with double or triple-glazed ones, installation of energy-efficient heating and cooling systems, and the use of renewable energy sources like solar panels or wind turbines.

Larger buildings may potentially also provide power for the neighbourhood or back to the grid. The use of natural materials and incorporating passive design strategies like natural ventilation and shading can also improve the building’s energy performance.

The retrofitting process can also involve the integration of smart technologies to control energy use and improve occupant comfort. These upgrades can significantly reduce the energy consumption and carbon footprint of old buildings, making them more sustainable and cost-effective over their lifetime.

Whether it’s 19th-century factories, mid-20th-century office blocks or old warehouses, existing buildings are being reimagined and effectively repurposed for new times. 

Raising the bar with new developments

In some cases, demolition and rebuilding is the best option, giving developers the chance to expand what’s possible in sustainability terms on a particular site.

Our game-changing Curzon Wharf development does just that. It will see the creation of the world’s first truly carbon-neutral skyscraper. The design has been led by Cundall Johnston & Partners, a global multidisciplinary engineering consultancy and a founding signatory of the World Green Building Council’s Net-Zero Carbon Commitment.

High noise levels at the site have precluded the potential for natural ventilation, so the team have developed a solution that meets the ambitious low-carbon targets of the project. Energy demand has been driven down through a high-quality, optimised thermal envelope in line with Passivhaus principles. This has enabled fossil fuels to be eliminated from the site with heat pumps satisfying all heat demands. This energy is further offset through roof and façade mounted photovoltaics.

The building’s operational carbon emissions will be offset through a combination of renewable energy production and carbon offsetting, to achieve carbon neutral status.

This transformative project will see new residential, retail, office and research space in an area currently occupied by industrial units built in the 1960s. This will not only be a huge asset for a regenerated Birmingham but will also set the net-zero standard for urban development in the UK and beyond.

At Woodbourne Group, we’re excited about the challenges ahead as we look to play our part in building a carbon-neutral future for the UK. Whether it’s our own developments or working with the visionaries of the future via Woodbourne Ventures, we’re always looking for new ways to create a more sustainable built environment for everyone.

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