Cutting down embodied carbon

May 4th, 2021

The real estate sector is just waking up to the fact that reducing operational emissions in the built environment is the easier part of the net zero carbon challenge – the more difficult part is tackling embodied carbon.

With most of the buildings that will be around in 2050 already built, and a large proportion of these likely to require redevelopment in the next 30 years, we need to find a solution with sustainability at its heart.

Successfully confronting the environmental impact of existing assets means rethinking the demolition-versus-refurbishment conundrum and committing ourselves to extending the life of buildings that would once have been consigned to the scrapheap with little consideration. If we take a truly ‘whole-life’ approach, shouldn’t the burden of proof be on the developer to prove why an existing building needs to be demolished? Shouldn’t all existing buildings be given similar protections to those that are already provided to historic buildings?

The effort and complexity involved in repurposing a 1980s office block of no particular merit can be much greater than knocking it down and starting again. Design compromises will almost inevitably need to be made. But with COP26 taking place in Glasgow this November, and the climate emergency reaching the point of no return, it is time for a fundamental change in mindset. Tackling embodied carbon effectively requires reusing the buildings we already have in order to meaningfully reduce the volume of construction work undertaken in the built environment.

Our strategy for The Rex in Kingston, our flagship co-living development, has pivoted from demolition and rebuild to retention and repurpose, driven by our pledge to become a net zero carbon developer by 2030. It is the more difficult route but it is also the right one. As the carbon emergency intensifies, it is time to be radical in our thinking.