Net zero commitments have increased rapidly over the years as countries, cities and businesses have pledged to create a more sustainable future. As real estate and the built environment is responsible for more than 40% of global carbon emissions, the sector has a significant role to play in achieving the net zero targets. Decarbonizing has become the need of the hour and it is important that the sector contributes towards decarbonization.
The understanding has been that a new building is the most energy efficient and sustainable way to tackle carbon emissions. While much attention is given to new sustainably built buildings, due importance should be given to retrofitting and refurbishing older buildings too to deal with issues like insulation, lighting and ventilation , all contributors to the buildings emissions. This gains more importance in the light of new legislation that is being formulated and coming into being to support the decarbonization efforts across the globe. For example, the recent energy efficiency laws in Wales and England render nearly one tenth of the offices in central London obsolete by 2023; and if steps are not taken to align with the laws/ retrofit/ refurbish, almost half of the buildings in central London will be obsolete by 2027. This is just in the UK. Similar legislation and regulations are in existence or in the works across other countries as well.
The solution is not always to build a newer, swanky, sustainable building, not only for the obvious reasons like cost, time, but also because of the fact that constructing a new building is less eco-friendly than renovating an old one. This has been proven in a study conducted by the Preservation Green Lab of the National Trust for Historic Preservation which states that reuse almost always has lesser environmental impact than new construction. The study also states that it can take 10 to 80 years for a new energy-efficient building to overcome the negative climate change impact made during its construction, thus even a LEED Platinum building suffers a carbon debt during construction, that may take years to pay off. Opting to refurbish or renovate existing buildings has numerous advantages, both on the financial and environmental front. However, some buildings are just not suitable for renovation, reason being a variety of factors like the foundation strength, size of the lot or the internal layout which cannot be altered due to technical reasons.
Whatever be the case, there is no definite answer as to what is a better option? It all depends on the current condition of the building and what is required as an end result. In many cases the choice is made by comparing the options in terms of the costs involved. Every project is different and the decision refurbish or build a new, should be made on an individual basis, keeping the benefits and drawbacks in consideration.