Designing for the Future: Buildings must stand the test of time in the race to reach carbon goals

Architects and property developers “have to be more creative in our approach to buildings old and new, residential or commercial, to ensure that what we design, is designed to last,” says SPPARC chief, Trevor Morriss.

The usefulness of a building is constantly changing as society evolves, writes Trevor Morriss, principal at architecture practice SPPARC. While the best buildings remain essential for centuries, the most misguided in form and function are scarcely occupied as needs change and often remain empty until one day, they are replaced with what is perceived to be the next new thing. 

Trevor Morriss, Principal at SPPARC

When buildings – whether it be residential or commercial, are no longer fit for purpose the societal implications are stark. The cost of erasing mistakes and the scars that obsolescence leaves behind are felt in their environmental damage as well as in the wallet.

Construction, demolition, and excavation generate around 60% of total UK waste, while the embodied carbon released when bulldozing a building can total nearly one-third of a building’s total emissions. 

Often when a building ceases to be useful or its specified all too short design life has expired, it is because of a process known as “creative destruction”. In simple terms, innovation leads to the replacement of old ways of production. For people, this generally means better products and services, but for buildings which are unadaptable, creative destruction comes with casualties and costs.

The urgent need to decarbonise means that vast swathes of real estate are at risk of becoming outmoded in the coming years

The urgent need to decarbonise means that vast swathes of real estate are at risk of becoming outmoded in the coming years. Data from Rightmove shows that just under 1.7 million homes across England and Wales do not have the potential to improve higher than an Energy Performance Certificate (EPC) rating of between D and G. With the government’s current aspiration to have as many homes as possible reach a C rating by 2035 across these two countries, we need to dramatically shift the way we look at building so that new homes can easily incorporate the latest sustainable technology.

On the office and retail front, McKinsey estimates that as many as 40% of these assets could be stranded by 2030 under the weight of incoming legislation. Technological change and the rise of e-commerce has already deeply compromised much-loved buildings and cored out civic institutions like the high street, resulting in neglected sites that often sit bare in the middle of communities. 

Take Debenhams, the historic British department store that occupied many of the most beautiful buildings on high streets across the country. The chain struggled to adapt to changing consumer tastes and online shopping. Nearly a year after Debenhams collapsed, almost 90% of the buildings they once occupied remain empty.

While these voids make clear that greater flexibility in the planning system is needed to repurpose existing buildings to suit other uses, the complexities of retrofitting or recycling existing structures is a reminder that the buildings we design today must stand the test of time.

This is an imperative. Under net-zero government targets that will come into law by 2030, Savills has estimated that a staggering 83% of the UK’s current retail stock will need to be improved by 2030 to comply with ESG regulations.

A great example of this rejuvenation to an old building through a change of use includes the former Midland Bank headquarters at 27 Poultry, which now hosts The Ned, part of the Soho House group. This saw 29,450 square metres of space transformed into an eating, drinking, sleeping (and even rooftop swimming) destination in the square mile.

Architects and developers must think carefully about a building and place’s current purpose and how it could adapt over time to meet the needs of future generations

From now and into the future, architects and developers must think carefully about a building and place’s current purpose and how it could adapt over time to meet the needs of future generations. This means being more resourceful, reactivating legacy assets across the built environment, but also working backwards to understand how design proposals can incorporate principles of disassembly. 

Borough Yards is another example of reimagining a neglected space and creating a new destination for London. Through careful design and consideration, we took disused yet historically significant warehouses, viaducts and arches next to London’s famous Borough Market, and opened up the site to create a co-locality of new offices, shopping and dining for the community. Within the constraints of a particularly dense area of the capital, we’ve contributed to a cultural quarter which has survived centuries of change even under the shadow of the Shard.

Borough Yards is an example of reimagining a neglected space and creating a new destination for London.
“Within the constraints of a particularly dense area of the capital, we’ve contributed to a cultural quarter which has survived centuries of change even under the shadow of the Shard.”

Whilst our approach to the reimagining of Olympia — one of the last bastions of London’s Great Exhibitions — has been to incorporate design principles and optimise wide, open spaces to allow for reconfigurability as the collection of buildings age along with complementary uses to create a lifestyle district of culture and innovation that successfully cohabits with the heritage setting.

Olympia is being reimagined to create “a lifestyle district of culture and innovation that successfully cohabits with the heritage setting.”
SPPARC’s designs for Olympia optimise wide, open spaces to allow for reconfigurability as the collection of buildings age.

As sculptors of the built environment, architects must play their part in limiting the carbon impact that we contribute to. This doesn’t mean that our hands are tied. It simply means we have to be more creative in our approach to buildings old and new, residential or commercial, to ensure that what we design, is designed to last.