In the latest episode of PropCast, Asif Din, Anna Harper, and Patrick Brown speak to Blackstock Consulting’s Andrew Teacher about the recent row that has erupted around the planned demolition of Marks & Spencer’s flagship Oxford Street store and the Mayor of London, why it matters, and what the real estate industry can do to better engage on embodied carbon.
Until recently, it’s unlikely that many people on the street would have had a strong opinion about the relative environmental merits of demolishing versus retrofitting a building.
However, the controversy surrounding Marks & Spencer’s proposals to tear down and rebuild its Art Deco store on Oxford Street has brought industry concerns and, importantly, public outcry around ‘embodied’ carbon to a much wider audience. Campaigners have highlighted the potential carbon savings of refurbishing rather than rebuilding the 100-year-old store.
A primary critique of the supermarket giant’s plans was that the building’s features lent themselves well to refurbishment, such as its good floor-to-ceiling heights. Asif Din, director of sustainability at architects Perkins&Will explains that: “Demolishing it requires a new building, maybe made of concrete, that will have more carbon invested in it.”
The furore around these proposals marked a sea change, with embodied carbon now becoming a focus of media and political attention that the industry needs to be aware of. Summarising this sentiment, Patrick Brown, head of ESG at Blackstock Consulting, says: “Operational carbon… is no longer the only show in town.”
Din explains that data on embodied carbon is difficult, but not impossible, to obtain. “It’s important to assess what you already have properly,” he points out. “Whether it’s a pre-demolition audit, existing building stock, or amalgamating existing offices.”
“One of the main problems,” Din continues, “is that we don’t have enough data to create benchmarks.” This makes embodied carbon assessment possible, but certainly not a trivial task.
Anna Clare Harper, director at IMMO, a tech-driven residential investment platform that recently raised $75 million in Europe’s largest-ever proptech Series B round, offers a perspective from the residential market. “For a long time, we have been obsessed with building new homes to solve the housing crisis,” she says. “But there is a huge cost to demolish and the embodied carbon of whatever else is built.”
Nevertheless, whether operational or embodied, a focus on carbon alone needs to be balanced with other factors. “Carbon is one aspect that we think about quite carefully, but there are a range of other environmental elements that need to be considered,” explains Din.
Granted, carbon is one factor among many, but policymakers have set their sights on reducing it, such as via the Climate Change Act 2008, which includes a headline Net Zero target for 2050. The policy position on embodied carbon is less clear. “Several local councils have declared climate emergencies without necessarily having the underlying policies to deliver on the targets they set,” Brown explains, suggesting that leading indicators for the buildings we build and refurbish now are lacking.
Harper agrees that the delivery of Net Zero needed to be better rooted in evidence on the whole. “I think many companies’ leaders have set a net zero target for a time when they know their successor will be in charge,” she observes.
While policy does not present ready answers on embodied carbon, market leaders are taking proactive steps, proving the art of the possible – but not without experiencing difficulties with industry practice. Brown notes that in its refurbishment of 50 Finsbury Square, Great Portland Estates had reconditioned and retained glazing to save on embodied carbon, and British Land had done the same at 1 Triton Square. However, there’s a need for insurers and agents to get more comfortable with this.
“It’s easier to follow the path of least resistance,” Din concurs. “Which means knocking the building down, starting again, and having brand new stuff straight off the shelf. To do anything different – for example retaining, reclaiming, recertifying, or remanufacturing – is always difficult, but you’re ultimately saving the carbon.”
The problem is that saving the hidden embodied carbon might entail similar costs to building traditionally, and rely on someone willing to assess it. Brown says: “If we get to a point where we have a decent metric to attach to it, then a carbon tax becomes something that can be channelled appropriately.”
It’s clear that there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to the question of rebuilding versus retrofitting. But the M&S debacle has at least raised the profile of a debate that some of real estate’s most forward-thinking leaders have been tackling head-on.