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Material considerations

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By Sally Morris-Smith


Published 29 September 2023


Sally Morris Smith, Real Estate partner at international law firm DAC Beachcroft, considers flexibility of use and how the lifecycle of buildings can be extended through adaptive re-use and repurposing.

There is a school of thought that (…in the developed world at least ) we have reached the stage where we have already created all the commercial and public buildings that we’ll ever need.

The theory is that with technological advances and new methods of repurposing spaces then the necessity for new sites and new materials will recede. It's a seductive idea on many levels given that we have recently passed the point where everything which mankind has built and made now exceeds the weight of all natural life on earth.

In the built environment sector, re-using materials from previous structures is a sensible suggestion not to mention more carbon efficient providing there is a ready supply and quality and regulatory standards are not diluted. It is also a solution for buildings which cannot be repurposed in their current state. Harvesting building carcasses for materials is a dystopian and novel approach but its positive to think that demolition does not mean the end of their usefulness.

Anyone who has renovated or upgraded an older residential property themselves will report the sense of added satisfaction and pride locating and sourcing authentic building materials – somehow the product becomes more valuable as a result of the extra effort.

The process of ‘adaptive re-use’ (salvaging materials from demolished buildings) on a larger scale is gaining momentum and there are already some notable examples of it being employed. In Denmark, bricks and tiles from the former Carlsberg brewery in Copenhagen were re-used for a housing scheme. The developers claim that through this and re-using other materials they achieved a 50-60% reduction in the amount of CO2 that would have been generated by conventional construction. They also reported that the resultant homes proved more popular in the marketplace precisely because of their enhanced environmental credentials.

It's unrealistic to expect all materials from defunct buildings to be immediately capable of use for a new project. The logistics of scaling up are challenging. To address this, there are increasing calls for "materials passporting" for re-usable materials to be logged and ‘banked’ for future use. In Holland, architect Thomas Rau is creating a public database of materials in existing buildings and their potential reuse capability. The system gives materials a digital record of their specific characteristics and value. These ‘passports’ enable items to be recovered, recycled and reused. Rau is currently working with the city of Amsterdam to catalogue the components of every public building in the city. He comments: “We have to think of buildings as material depots. Waste is simply material without an identity”.

The UK construction industry accounts for 60% of all materials used, while creating a third of all waste and generating 45% of all CO2 emissions in the process. The most efficient conservation of materials may lie also in repurposing the entirety of an existing building to a new use rather than constructing a new one - this is said to be 10 times more efficient in terms of carbon emissions.

Necessity is driving some new thinking - City centre multi storey car parks - whilst conveniently located – are most often the least attractive buildings on the street and beset with a number of building fabric issues. Increasingly empty because of the steady roll-out of congestion charges and low emission zones as well as decline in car parking revenues due to the advent of the virtual office - owners of these sites need a solution fast. British Land has acquired Finsbury Square underground car park in the heart of the City of London for a logistics project in the heart of the metropolis and will shortly be rolling out another in Paddington. Extra sustainability brownie points will ensue from the low emissions electric vehicle fleet to be housed there. Dakota hotel in Leeds – formerly a city centre car park has also been successfully repurposed as a luxury boutique hotel.

In fact, the hospitality industry has long recognised the value of repurposing - Nick de Klerk of Purcell, the heritage architecture specialists has commented on adaptive reuse confirming “Adapting old buildings to new uses, making them relevant, accessible and improving their environmental performance is becoming a priority for leading hospitality brands". Further afield in Cape Town - agricultural grain storage units have been repurposed as the Silo Hotel with a façade remodelled British designer Thomas Heatherwick – testament to the fact that repurposing doesn’t need to be solely driven by what new use seems most amenable to the current structure.

Repurposing of buildings also goes together with the re-use of materials but maybe that in itself is part of our built-environment journey. As de Klerk points out, "the Romans were doing it in London nearly 2,000 years ago…."