Why retrofit is the key to creating resilient cities

The five panel members from the retrofit event pose for a photo smiling with a Future of London banner and projection screen in the background
Retrofit panel (l-to-r) Nicola Mathers (chair), Amandeep Singh Kalra, Matthew Essex, Jo Spencer and Simon Rogers

From area-based retrofit and micro-studios to data and finance, read the sharp insights and useful take-aways from our recent retrofit for London event.

As the demand for high street retail and office space is in flux, retrofit has a vital role to play in creating resilient and flexible cities.

There’s opportunity for city-wide retrofit solutions, while the case for cutting embodied carbon resulted in a legal battle over Marks & Spencer’s plans to rebuild its flagship Oxford Street store. So is demolition ever the answer?

As part of our series of events called Making the Most of… What We’ve Got, we assembled an expert panel to consider retrofit opportunities and challenges for London. Here are the main points of the discussion.

Speakers
Matthew Essex, Executive Director of Place, RB Kingston
Nicola Mathers (Chair) CEO, Future of London
Simon Rogers, Partner, Montagu Evans
Amandeep Singh Kalra, Associate, Be First
Jo Spencer, Senior Structural Engineer, Arup

Systems opportunity

To meet borough climate targets, we need to retrofit one home every 30 seconds! The opportunity for the sector over the next 10-15 years is huge as 80% of today’s buildings will still be here in 2050. This level of retrofit requires speed, supply chain in place and an enabling policy framework.

One audience member asked can we not use the supply-chain that is now delivering fire safety retrofits throughout the capital? And another, from City of London flagged their recently published guidance asking developers to give options for retrofit vs demolition so officers can consider the best scenarios.

In the Royal Borough of Kingston there is a long history of energy efficiency and retrofit. Recent residential retrofits have been surprisingly easy, with main challenges being the siting of heat pumps, and knowledge gaps in private tenure, residents are clamouring for information on retrofit solutions.

Matthew Essex of RB Kingston drew on their experience to explore a London-wide solution for speeding up retrofit.

“There is a big systems opportunity here in London,” he said. “For a long time, the GLC were building one of three different types of residential block all over the capital.

“The technical retrofit solutions for these are all going to be broadly the same so we shouldn’t have borough’s competing and replicating work. Instead, we should coordinate the finance and supply chain to deliver this large scale retrofit as a quick win”

Information and data

Good data is essential to realise this kind of opportunity. Councils need to know the state of their building stock which in turn can help identify which technologies will be most appropriate. This is even more acute when retrofitting with residents in situ. The key here is to select less intrusive technologies and move fast.

Information also helps us to understand how retrofit can deliver multiple benefits. Parents can’t work when their children are off sick, so an understanding of how healthier homes can reduce costs on the health service and boost the economy is a vital part of making the case for retrofit investment.

At Arup, retrofit is a large part of their work and an interesting emerging topic is in the commercial retrofit space as related to local economies. They are making headway in helping clients retrofit office space into laboratories:

“We need all the right information and data to make a good decision to retrofit buildings,” said Jo Spencer of Arup. “With everyone on the same page we can make the right decisions around upgrade potentials.

“Let’s also not forget the multiple benefits from retrofits. If housing stock is improved, the health costs on our NHS are reduced and the economy improves. We’re finding clients who are keen to retrofit city-centre based office space into laboratories to attract new jobs and talent to the area.”

When is an office not an office?

Continuing the commercial sector discussion, Simon Rogers of Montagu Evans explained that the whole industry is trying to upgrade sustainability performance. There is major structural change in the office sector and in some instances distressed assets.

The market is relatively flat and so value and building end-use need to be factored with other objectives such as social value, place-making and sustainability.

Matthew pointed out that a large part of the reuse debate has played out as office to residential conversions near high streets where buildings are bought back to life with the growing trend of micro-studios. Often done to good standards but undersized, are these what people want? Can we legislate on an area basis to achieve right uses?

Focusing on the commercial side of the debate, and particularly offices, Simon made these recommendations:

  1. Costs are a challenge, so concentrate the spend where office use has a genuine future, so the payback is there.
  2. With everywhere else, be flexible – in both use and approach. An empty office isn’t an employment asset, it is a wasted opportunity.
  3. What more can we do to incentivise retrofit, rather than just feeding demand for best in class with brand new supply? Planning flexibility and clarity, fiscal incentives, improvement in design and technical solutions can all play a part.

Residents and, of course, finance

Roadshows and best practice guidance for residents can raise awareness and uptake of retrofit measures. Community engagement too is key but retrofit is crucial to so many objectives the discussion shouldn’t be ‘if’ but rather on the ‘what, the how, and the when.’

Becontree in Barking and Dagenham is the UKs largest housing estate and with funding from the Department of Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Pathfinder programme, Be First facilitated a co-designed retrofit design code.

Six people stand outside a house with a boarded up door and window holding a wooden model of a house and cheering
Becontree retrofit resident engagement (Image: Be First)

Moving onto financing retrofits Matthew sees two opportunities:

  1. handing housing over to a socially minded investor such as a BCorp who takes on the retrofit and/or
  2. blend government grants and green investment, with maintenance costs and council’s own funds.

Amandeep Singh Kalra, Associate at Be First, agreed and see’s the field of innovative retrofit finance models as the next hurdle to solve. In fact, an investor in the audience started sketching out a retrofit finance model with the panellist’s mid-session!

“The most significant growth potential in the built environment sector – literally as it has been built – lies in retrofitting,” said Amandeep. “Our initial move involves overcoming one of the major hurdles—planning and information overload—by co-designing a Becontree retrofit design code and guide with direct involvement from residents.

“The next major advancement will come through innovative finance models that combine public and private funding, or possibly the establishment of a public works loan/grant fund to support large-scale community retrofitting.”

Conclusions

The panel and audience shared a passion for, and many practical ideas for meeting the retrofit opportunity in our capital city. There are many facets to the topic but in this session the skills, knowledge and collaboration is evidently already here.

Further reading

Thanks to our programme sponsors Arup, Montagu Evans, Mount Anvil, Potter Raper and to Montagu Evans for hosting this event.