Rebuild or renovate – is retrofitting old buildings an effective way to reduce carbon emissions in the built environment?

With finite land for development, we need to embrace the renovation and retrofit of existing buildings. Whilst it is tempting to demolish the current constructions and clear the space to start afresh, this often isn’t the best option. As with furniture and clothes, a more sustainable solution is to repurpose the old into a design that meets modern tastes.

Reducing Carbon Emissions

The construction industry has a role to play in lowering carbon emissions and environmental impact. By 2030, all new builds need to demonstrate a 68% reduction in carbon emissions in comparison to 1990 data. This rises to 78% by 2035 and then Net Zero by 2050. It will take more than heat pumps, insulation and waste management to achieve these ambitious targets.

For this reason, Architects Journal have been campaigning for Retrofit First for five years. This aims to actively encourage architects, planners and developers to consider refurbishment before demolition.

Whilst it has been common practice to demolish old buildings for new, we need to question whether this is the best way to reduce carbon emissions. Instead, remodelling, extending and upgrading existing stock can be a more sustainable solution. And, whilst this approach does bring its challenges, it also draws on the history and soul of a building.

Renovation can add character and desirability to a build. This is especially so when original materials are reused or repurposed in the renovation. Following this, sourcing manufactured materials from local suppliers can ensure a building’s architectural success.

Material Reuse for Contextual Design

Contextual design focuses on creating a connection with and a response to the surroundings. Rather than simply replicating neighbouring properties, good architecture reflects design styles, references the heritage of the area and draws on the natural landscape.

The reuse of building materials is an effective way to give a nod to the past. As such, using original tiles, brick, stone or timber can help a building blend in with its surroundings. They create a connection to the site and location, even when the architectural design holds no resemblance to the original build.

Personally, we love the effect when repurposed materials are complimented by contrasting new materials. For example, a traditional stone wall built from reclaimed building materials adjacent to new dark charred timber cladding. This creates visual and textural interest and can transform bland into brilliant.

We’ve supplied Shou Sugi Ban® charred timbers to many renovation projects. These include buildings of historical or cultural interest, as well as barn conversions and residential period properties. The timeless quality of blackened timber seems to provide the perfect finish to a wide variety of architectural styles.


Material Reuse for Resource Efficiency

There is no doubt that it takes time to carefully remove and clean wooden beams, roof tiles and other original building materials. However, these can elevate the finished build. What’s more, material reuse supports resource efficiency. It creates considerably more carbon to process waste from a site and produce new materials than to reclaim and repurpose.

We recognise that not all materials are in sufficiently good condition to be removed without damage or reused. However, we need to shift thinking towards what can be reclaimed or recycled and how these can be effectively paired with new materials for great effect.

When selecting new materials for your renovation project, consider the full sustainability cycle. This is one of the reasons that our charred timber cladding is desired. Shou Sugi Ban® is sourced from responsibly managed forests and hand-crafted using a traditional Japanese technique that minimises the need for chemicals. The process enhances the durability and resilience of the timber. Finally, offcuts can be reused or recycled. Equally, when the building is renovated in the future, timbers can be reused or recycled.

Material Reuse for Planning Approval

To address the sustainability agenda, planning departments are being encouraged to recognise and value the use of salvaged materials.

Interestingly, one area of contention for the reuse of salvaged materials is the renovation in conservation areas. You might think that having ‘special architectural or historic interest, the character of which is desirable to preserve or enhance’ would make reclaimed materials a prized asset in gaining planning permission. This has been the case on many projects, however, the opposing view is to be ‘architecturally honest’.

Being ‘architecturally honest’ means clearly showing any renovation work, rather than attempting to blend in adaptions. This approach helps to tell the story of the building, recognising original parts and more recent additions. Yet, the moves towards sustainability are now recognising that salvaged materials can be sympathetically applied. As a result, there are changing attitudes to material reuse in planning approval.

Charred Timber in Heritage Renovations

If you are considering new materials to enhance your renovation project, take a look at Shou Sugi Ban® charred timber. From traditional black to enhanced grain or light, smooth finishes, our timber cladding is a natural partner to other building materials.

Blackened timber isn’t the only colour option, we have a full range of finishes to pick from. Selecting the right tone can help your build to blend into the landscape or provide a clear distinction between old and new.

To find out more about Charred Timber for renovation projects, contact us on 01494 711800. We are happy to give advice and provide timber samples.

Related reading:

The carbon and business case for choosing refurbishment over new build