News: 23rd March 2017

An insight into the Re-Use Atlas No. 9

The Re-Use Atlas: A designer’s guide to the circular economy

Author: Duncan Baker-Brown RIBA FRSA

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Entry number 9

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Since the Waste House was completed in June 2014, Duncan Baker-Brown has been working on a book that considers the challenges and opportunities presenting designers and clients who wish to ‘mine the anthropocene’, with existing places, communities and stuff previously mined and processed. Duncan’s book is entitled ‘The Re-Use Atlas’. It will be published in May 2017. However, this blog will give people the opportunity to read parts of the book before the publishing date. Enjoy!

Part 2 of the atlas is divided into four chapters, taking the reader on a step-by-step route towards closed loop systems. Each ‘step’ contains a number of case studies that capture some of Duncan’s first-hand research, gleaned from interviewing over fifty people involved in inspiring projects from around the world that tackle recycling, re-use, the reduction of resource use, and finally closed loop systems. These case studies are supplemented with one longer interview with a significant protagonist from each of the aforementioned steps. Therefore unless stated otherwise, any comments quoted from people in the case studies have been taken directly from interviews Duncan had personally with them.

Step 3 Reducing the amount of material used

Case Study – Jakob + MacFarlane’s transformation of the Docks de Paris building

I had originally wanted to discuss one of my favourite retrofit projects, Jakob + MacFarlane’s transformation of the Docks de Paris building from 1907 into the ‘City of Fashion and Design’. The massive in-situ cast concrete frame and floor plates from the original shipping depot were kept, with the architects designing what they call a ‘plug-over’, which is actually an external steel and glass skin complemented with timber and grassed decks. The new facade is pulled away from the old frame to allow for a new circulation zone. The roof is topped off with an array of solar photovoltaic panels.

The reason I like this building is simple: the architects have seen the value in this simple piece of concrete infrastructure from over a century ago. With the minimum of effort, Jakob + MacFarlane have transformed it into a centre for high culture, and they have done this in a visually expressive and exuberant manner that begs the viewer to ask questions of this clever retrofit project. They have also done this with the minimum of new material, as the lightweight steel and glass facade makes the most of the potentials of the old strong and thermally massive concrete frame to work hard for the new programme. But I’m not going to speak about this building as I think there is another linked topic that is more important to discuss in my Re-Use Atlas.

This topic is less glamorous, but I believe it is one of the biggest challenges we have as architects and designers. It is the task of adapting for climate resilience the buildings, neighbourhoods, towns and cities that are already built and inhabited. How can the retrofitting of our existing places be done in a creative, intelligent and sensitive way, so that it reduces humankind’s carbon footprint, without displacing communities and perhaps obliterating centuries of cultural and social history?

The City of Fashion and Design is an ingenious solution to a design challenge. However, the large size of the site, and the single occupant, makes the project perhaps an easier nut to crack than what I believe to be the biggest retrofit challenge we have – how to convert multi-occupancy, unloved and poorly maintained housing estates. It is this challenge that I want to consider now, and I will do this by looking at the UK’s housing retrofit challenge.

The UK, which has more than 27 million homes, has some of the most energy inefficient dwellings in Europe. As a result they are also the most expensive in Europe to heat. Around 50% of these homes were built before 1960, with only 10% built since 1990. One of the consequences of this situation is that fuel poverty is also at a higher level in the UK than in any other comparable EU country. The definition of ‘fuel poverty’ is if a tenant is spending more than 10% of their net income on their fuel bills.2 More than 10 million families live in ‘fuel poverty’ in properties with a leaking roof, damp walls and rotting windows. Despite this, UK CO2 emissions have fallen by 35% when compared to 1990 levels.3 However, the UK needs to reduce its CO2 emissions by a total of 80% when compared to 1990 levels, and needs to do this by 2050. Recent CO2 emission reductions have started to slow down. The UK, like all its European partners to a greater or lesser extent, has a huge challenge ahead to meet its CO2 emission reduction targets by 2050. Another issue is that many experts estimate that 80% of the houses currently standing will be the structures trying to meet these ambitious targets. For numerous reasons, the UK doesn’t build much housing, or demolish it.

The lack of demolition is a good thing for the environment. However, the high energy consumption associated with these leaky old structures is not. So with this in mind I wanted to dwell upon the big challenge of how to adapt existing UK housing, new and old, so that it is climate-change resilient. This challenge should not be underestimated. The temptation to demolish large housing estates from the 1950s–70s is great, but as the UK learnt with the wholesale destruction of its so-called slums to make way for these large estates, along with the clearing the Victorian terraces, the bulldozers destroyed whole communities. As we have seen with a number of case studies in this chapter, a well-informed retrofit project has the potential to greatly enhance the performance of a place without destroying the community it supports.

Retrofit is complex though. The UK government’s innovation agency, Innovate UK (formerly the Technology Strategy Board), has undertaken extensive research into this subject, supporting more than 80 retrofit case studies via its ‘Retrofit the Future’ initiative.4 This programme gave architects and social landlords the challenge of retrofitting examples of UK social housing from the 1870s to the 1970s. All of the case studies were given a (large) budget of £150,000 to spend on often very modest buildings, with a goal of reducing CO2 emissions to meet the UK government’s 2050 targets. Only eight of the case studies met this target.

So it is early days for top-quality retrofit projects. There are not many designers, contractors or clients who understand the complexities and challenges that face them when trying to deliver a successful retrofit project. Many retrofit projects deal with only some of the problems that a building might have. For example, many buildings are being over-clad with external wall insulation that dramatically reduces heat loss through the building fabric. However, this fabric-focused approach often comes at a cost for the tenants, resulting in poor internal air quality due to a virtually airtight fabric and poor background ventilation. The knock-on effect, especially in winter, is mould on internal walls due to a build up of moisture in the air. Another problem many people are anticipating is a new type of ‘fuel poverty’ – the inability of some tenants to afford the bolt-on air-cooling devices needed to deal with over-heating in the summer months. Retrofitting needs to be delivered in a holistic manner, where the design team and contractors have a deep understanding of building physics and a sensitivity towards the tenants they have to work around.

Having said all of the above, there are a number of architects and contractors who are doing an excellent job. One of these architecture practices is Gardener Stewart Architects (GSA), which is currently tackling some of the most challenging housing estates in the south-east of England. One of these is Wilmcote House, Southsea in Portsmouth, which comprises 100 three-bed maisonettes plus seven one-bed flats. Constructed in 1968, this development utilises a precast concrete panel construction system, with a fully electric hot water and space heating system. Although cost-effective and swift to erect in the late 1960s, the apartments in this social housing scheme are cold and damp, and for many of the tenants, too expensive to heat, creating ‘fuel poverty’. Maintenance costs are spiralling upwards, due in part to the coastal saline air and exposure to severe weather. The Le Corbusier inspired ‘streets in the sky’ external access decks create a security problem for tenants, and finally the projected economic and social costs of decanting and completely demolishing these buildings was not affordable.

GSA has attempted to solve all of these problems. The cold and leaky concrete skin is now wrapped with a new super-insulated and super-airtight wall that sits on its own foundations immediately in front of the old concrete walls, leaving them intact. New treble glazed Passivhaus-standard windows have been installed, with access balconies given over either to extending apartments or the creation of private balconies/sunspaces. Mechanical Ventilation and Heat Recovery (MVHR) has been installed for a number of reasons. It will ensure hugely improved air quality (reduced moisture content in winter will reduce the likelihood of mildew) and reduced energy consumption. This ‘fabric first’ approach is also underpinned with the retrofit version of Passivhaus design principles, called EnerPhit. GSA predicts energy savings of 80 to 90% (down to less than 20kWh/m2/yr). At £920/ m2 this project compares very favourably with ‘normal’ new build costs. However, the running costs of this are negligible when compared to normal new build housing projects, and, most impressively, the apartments have been increased in size, while the community has not been broken up and rehoused around the city; it has been kept intact. The hope is that the occupants of these homes will now not have to spend nearly so much of their wages on heating bills, and the aesthetics of the retrofitted buildings, together with the new communal and retail facilities, will help them live their lives in a more pleasant environment. Wilmcote House will hopefully meet, or even exceed, the UK government’s CO2 reduction commitments (80% by 2050) today rather than putting it off for tomorrow. Tenants will hopefully thrive in the new environments.