Demolishing 50,000 buildings a year is a national disgrace

Demolition is construction’s dirty secret. If the government is serious about wanting to Build Back Better, it must recognise that the greenest building is one that already exists.

Will Hurst www.thetimes.co.uk

This summer the government will strike a blow against our throwaway culture by giving consumers a right of repair on electrical goods. Under new rules, manufacturers will be legally obliged to make spare parts available, slashing “e-waste” and carbon emissions in the run-up to November’s Cop26 climate conference. The plans will put “more money back in the pockets of consumers while protecting the environment”, according to the business secretary, Kwasi Kwarteng. In promoting intensive and long-term use of resources, the move is a commendable example of circular economy thinking.

Yet ministers have barely scratched the surface when it comes to harnessing this approach to help meet Boris Johnson’s world-leading pledge to slash carbon emissions by 78 per cent by 2035. While the country generates 1.5 million tonnes of electrical waste each year, the figure for construction is 126 million tonnes, almost two thirds of all waste produced in the UK.

Buildings, much like electronic gadgets, are quickly viewed as obsolete with 50,000 demolished annually. Many could be revitalised and enlarged where necessary. Instead, they are erased and replaced with shiny new structures built of fossil-fuel-hungry steel and cement. No wonder the construction sector accounts for about 10 per cent of the country’s carbon emissions, a percentage only likely to grow.

As we emerge from the pandemic, you might have thought that all the talk of a green recovery would have slowed the wrecking ball, yet the opposite seems true. Save Britain’s Heritage, a charity established almost half a century ago, says it has never been busier fighting for historic buildings under threat. Great chunks of towns and cities such as Worcester, London, Coventry and Grimsby are earmarked for demolition or already condemned to it. What’s perverse is that this wasteful system is encouraged by the planning rules and a VAT system that charges 20 per cent on most refurbishment work and a rate of zero on much new-build construction, including housing.

What if ministers promoted a new approach based on reusing existing buildings wherever possible? That is what’s proposed by the Architects’ Journal’s RetroFirst campaign, which has widespread industry support and is the subject of a new short film voiced by the architect and broadcaster George Clarke.

Demolition is construction’s dirty secret. If the government is serious about wanting to Build Back Better, it must recognise that the greenest building is one that already exists.

Will Hurst is managing editor at the Architects’ Journal

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