Empathetic Architecture for a changing climate – are you onboard for the journey?

Senior Architect Tom McTernan shares his thoughts on empathetic architecture for a changing climate. The retrofit process provides a robust means to maintain and enhance the character of existing buildings. It retains the social value; the sense of community and ‘place’ existing buildings can create. Not to mention the health and wellbeing benefits retrofit can bring, with enhanced air quality and thermal comfort. Retrofit can create substantial savings on the cost of living, provide fuel security benefits, and ease the cost of the health burden associated with below par housing on the NHS. Retrofit is empathetic, it has the end user in mind.  It encompasses an underlying design ethos which is conscious of its impact on both the community and the environment.

A recent report from the Institute for Government has confirmed that Britain is among the oldest and leakiest housing stock in Europe . To meet the 2050 carbon targets, circa 26 million homes in Britian need to be retrofitted to allow them to respond to the challenges a changing climate brings. We are currently at a tipping point, with recent UN environment report projections suggesting that a 1.5 degree temperature rise is now inevitable, it’s a question of whether we can limit it to that.  We have already exhausted our resources in consideration of the carbon and greenhouse gases we have omitted into the atmosphere.  We now need to work with the resources we have and embrace the creative challenge of building within an existing context.

In Liverpool 60% of the city’s 700,000 existing homes are rated below the EPC band C standard, (the minimum standard which the Government is aiming to have for all dwellings by 2035).  There have been some recent developments with the regions retrofit policy receiving funding to make 5,000 low-income homes more energy efficient. However, we need to go further, quicker, to achieve the City’s bold targets of achieving net zero by 2040.

Additional government assistance is required but in the interim, as we wait for the government’s response, can we start to plan for the future? Ireland has a national retrofit plan which offers grant supports, project management strategies, free energy upgrades, and investments to the supply chain. Vancouver and Luxemburg have taken their own initiative to put retrofit policies at the forefront offering strong incentives to homeowners to retrofit their properties. Local authorities in the UK (for example Norwich have implemented robust sustainability/retrofit targets in their local plan. Could we take on board and implement some of the strategies which are working elsewhere?

Cost is a significant hurdle to overcome and retrofitting to robust standards such as EnerPHit (the retrofit equivalent of passive house) is often seen as too much of a challenge. In consideration of some recent studies in Ireland on the cost of building to the nearly zero energy building standard, the research suggests that building to Passivhaus standards can cost a nominal amount more than building to a building control compliant dwelling. The cost reduction on the study was down to the contractors and the design team (particularly quantity surveyors) scrutinising every detail, system choice and decision made during the design and build stages. It is apparent that once EnerPHit principles are fully embraced, gotten to grips with and tackled head on, costs will go down. And if EnerPHit is unachievable there are less stringent standards available -for instance the AECB Carbonlite standards, which offer improved quality assurance.

The recently issued PAS 2035 code of practice offers a framework providing best practice for retrofit. Along with the LETI Climate Emergency Retrofit Guide it focuses on a ‘whole house’ assessment, identifying, and designing from a holistic viewpoint whilst removing any issues.  For instance, it does not make any sense to add an airtight and thermally efficient extension to a leaky old building, the whole house must be considered. When updating windows consideration should be given to upgrading the ventilation alongside this to avoid condensation risks. When upgrading a kitchen, consideration should be given to adding internal wall and floor insulation. Each element should be holistically considered to ensure future progress is not hindered or made more expensive by completing a particular task.

It is evident that the tools, guidance, and standards are out there to allow us to take meaningful action. A cultural sea of change is coming, encompassing architecture that is empathetic of today’s circumstances. Are you on board for the journey?