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Retrofitting buildings is ‘best way to fight climate change’

A CGI of the rooftop forest at Roots in the Sky in London

Retrofitting buildings is the best contribution companies can make to the fight against climate change, delegates heard at Real Asset Media’s Investing in Cities with Purpose – Creating Net Zero Urban Centres briefing, which was held online on REALX.Global this week.

“Statistics show that the construction industry’s carbon emissions are sky-high because it’s based on a wasteful model,” said Paul Hicks, investment manager, Fabrix Capital. “Retrofitting is the right way forward, as it eliminates the high energy costs of demolition and the negative environmental impact of taking materials to landfills.”

The reason why developers prefer to knock down a building and create a shiny new asset is that it’s easier to meet sustainability criteria.

“That mentality has to change,” said Hicks. “It is better for the environment to repurpose existing buildings, even if it’s not easy.”

A positive development is that, in the UK, cities like London and Leeds are beginning to share their experience and exchange information on what actually works and what does not when it comes to repurposing buildings.

 “We are seeing positive signs of collaboration between cities on retrofitting,” said Julie Hirigoyen, chief executive, UK Green Building Council. “Renewable energy policies must be related to the built environment as well. There’s a whole host of measures to implement, it’s the only way to deliver at that scale and in the required time frame.”

Providing a sustainable building is also not the end of the road.

Measurement and continuous assessment are the biggest challenge

“How is the building being used? The biggest challenge in the real estate sector is about measurement and continuous assessment,” said Hicks. “It is almost too easy for developments to be net zero as you can offset so much.”

Another test is whether and how much the building engages with the local community and improves people’s lives. 

Hicks practices what he preaches: Fabrix’s latest project is Roots in the Sky in London, which has transformed the former Blackfriars Crown Court, a 1960’s building, into a sustainable, contemporary office, commercial and community space with adaptable floor plates.

The building will also have London’s first sustainable urban forest on the roof: 1.4 acres planted with thousands of trees and plants, a restaurant, bar and swimming pool.

The choice of an urban forest came from direct engagement with the local community, said Hicks: ”We sat down with them and asked them what they wanted, and they said green spaces where they could meet. We recognised that office space is in demand in the borough but that space and services for community use are lacking and we decided to dedicate many of the most commercially valuable areas of the new building, such as the roof, for local use.”

Fabrix has also set up a not-for-profit management structure to run the spaces.

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