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‘When we build…let it not be for present use alone. Let it be such work as our descendants will thank us for.’

- John Ruskin

Architecture & the Climate Emergency

The climate emergency is a crisis demanding immediate action. In 2019, the UK Government passed The Climate Change Act requiring all greenhouse gas emissions to be brought to Net Zero by 2050, thereby halting further contribution to global warming. In the United Kingdom, 40% of carbon emissions come from the built environment; moreover, half of the country’s emissions are the result of buildings’ energy use. Understanding this, what does passage of the Climate Change Act mean for architects?

The answer is simple. If we are responsible for a large percentage of the emissions, we must also be responsible for forwarding solutions. To change the trajectory, we must decrease net emissions across the entire lifecycle of projects. This includes both embodied carbon (carbon emitted through construction) and operational carbon (carbon emitted when a building is in use). While these efforts are crucial to stem the tide, I would argue they are not the ultimate answer. We can challenge ourselves and ask: why build at all if we don’t have to?

RIBA’s Climate Challenge & the Promise of Retrofit

The Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) developed the 2030 Climate Challenge to help architects design within a climate conscious framework. Centred around the targets to reduce operational energy and embodied carbon while increasing potable water and health and wellbeing, the Climate Challenge is a timely response to the climate emergency. With application for both new and major retrofit projects, it is a necessary step in mitigating, or at least adapting to, climate change.

What does RIBA’s guidance mean for architects, and more importantly, for our clients? The consequences and possibilities of our shared ambitions toward Net Zero targets come to life when considered holistically alongside the positive benefits of site-specific design propositions. Decarbonisation of existing sites can be challenging. Historic buildings and estates usually rely on fossil fuels for heating (typically gas central heating). Moreover, many are composed of existing buildings that are often poorly insulated. 

Overcoming cost, logistics and technical complexity barriers is almost always the first hurdle in trying to achieve Net Zero. Once this is achieved, the possibilities and potential upsides of retrofit can be revealed. We often discuss the need to adapt, reuse, and recycle as a responsive action to decrease or off-set adverse impacts; however, in truth, retrofit approaches are proactive, indeed often preferable, design options. Positioning them as such can help ensure their adoption in the years ahead.

At Wright & Wright, we consider historic sites to be part of a continuum, rather than something that is static. We are picking up where others have left off, and we certainly won’t be the last to make our mark. Much like antique furniture aged with the patina of time, an existing building or historic site reveals much about what has happened, and why, as well as the shared narratives of those who have inhabited spaces in which we find ourselves working. 

Respect for precedent reveals treasures worth saving, design solutions and answers to complex reinvention challenges that can be revealed in the existing site. We have found that all sites are rich with the existing resources that we need to make a project happen in a sensitive and climate appropriate way. Whether it be opportunities for increased biodiversity, gaining extra space, or reducing operational carbon, working closely with clients on retrofit solutions provides plentiful benefits without the costly and environmentally harmful impact of destruction and new build.

Navigating a Project for Long-Term Success

Even an experienced and climate conscious client may not know how to achieve ambitious environmental targets under current regulations. In my experience, taking a wider view and starting with a masterplan approach is almost always beneficial. Initial briefs conceived for capital projects are typically developed with Net Zero 2050 in mind; however, all too often the predetermined outcome is a building, or building work, because a project is only ever commissioned to address an immediate or long-term organisational challenge. However, relative to the whole life cost an organisation might face, an initial masterplan formulated through the lens of the RIBA Climate Challenge is a priceless investment. A masterplan limits upfront costs in contrast to the vast financial commitment needed for a complete building project.

London’s Museum of the Home: a case study

At the Museum of the Home (reopened in 2021), the original brief asked that we build a new gallery in the last remnant of land the Museum owned. With environmental impact and the positive rewards of reusing historic building fabric in mind, we were instead compelled to look to the existing Grade I listed buildings. The Museum had extraordinary trust and faith in the professional team and together we worked closely with internal stakeholders to reimagine their brief and develop a capital project that achieved the Museum’s aims and respected the legacy of its site.

We found the existing buildings desperately needed to be upgraded and structurally stabilised. Incidentally, we also found that through careful remodelling of the existing buildings, all of the Museum’s brief apart from a handful of programmatic elements could be accommodated within the listed structures. We increased public areas by 50%, and exhibition space by 80% without increasing net energy consumption across the site. Accessibility, despite the challenging Grade I listed context was dramatically improved, and the relandscaped gardens.

We listened to the public and vouched to retain the former public house on the corner of the site which was turned into the Museum café. In addition, a cross subsidy element was achieved through eight residential units that generated a significant capital receipt for the Museum. A new green roof added climate resilient planting to this urban part of the city, which those travelling through Hoxton Station on their daily commute can now enjoy. The capital project is just the first phase of a masterplan that the Museum has the flexibility to shape in years to come.

As the Museum of the Home makes clear, the target of Net Zero by 2050 is within arm’s reach if architects can help clients unlock their building assets while overlaying the client’s short-term and long-term ambitions. The target of Net Zero by 2050, as an isolated goal on its own, can overpower the evolution of a site and hinder the future resilience of an organisation. It is, however, a powerful tool when reviewed holistically and reconciled with clients’ other goals.

A Resilient Future

As a practice, we subscribe to Ruskin’s ideology. We want to part of a legacy that future generations will thank us for. A successful masterplan should offer tangible and deliverable solutions, producing a strategic road map for how an organisation can reach its Net Zero destination. Without a masterplan in palace, a capital project on its own may only ever a quick fix. Through the framework of the RIBA 2030 Climate Challenge, a malleable and agile masterplan will give an organisation the ability to grow into its site, maximise use of existing buildings and understand whether it needs to add new buildings at all. Providing clients with the knowledge to facilitate informed decision making is essential in affording the agency our world needs to drive toward a better future, reach Net Zero by 2050, and achieve organisational resilience.

Naila Yousuf, Partner at Wright & Wright Architects (August, 2023)

An award-winning, ecologically-minded design for a community-centric museum stems from a holistic redefinition of exhibition, storage and community spaces, all with no commensurate increase in energy use.

Entrance to Museum of the Home with people sitting on a bench in the foreground in Hackney London