Designer and TV presenter Kevin McCloud is a legend. Which of us doesn’t watch Grand Designs just to see how much grief couples go through to build the house of their dreams?
McCloud, who is actually the whole reason for watching, is on hand throughout complete with hard hat and that enigmatic smile, always so wonderfully sympathetic when trouble looms, as it always seems to do, and so eulogising about the finished product even as half the country knows it’s awful and wouldn’t be seen dead in it.
He recently got himself involved in the idea of an extra type of listing that he dubbed grade III. The idea follows on from the initiative The Architects’ Journal has been running for a while, which is that reusing a building rather than knocking it down should always be the first option. This is a perfectly sensible idea but like all such initiatives it’s not quite as simple as it looks.
McCloud calls the idea of knocking a building down because it’s old and inefficient “creative laziness” so under his new listing idea, which would apply to every unlisted building in the UK, of which apparently there are around 25 million, you would need permission before you could take any of them down to build a new one.
This is all about embodied carbon. This is the carbon dioxide emissions associated with materials and construction processes throughout the whole lifecycle of a building. It’s the carbon footprint of a building before it’s occupied. And it differs from operational carbon, which is the carbon dioxide associated with heating, lighting and other domestic or commercial use.
Cement is the principal suspect. The most abundant man-made material in the world is responsible for around 7% of the world’s carbon dioxide, such is the demand for housing and other structures not only in the UK but across the globe. The argument is that whenever you knock a building down, however ugly, however inappropriate in its location, however inefficiently it serves its original purpose, the process of taking it down and building a replacement just adds to our climate crisis challenge and not in a good way.
According to McCloud, about 50,000 buildings are knocked down every year often because it’s just cheaper to do so. So his remedy is that demolition would only be permitted if a building was structurally unsafe. The problem with what seems such a forward-looking stance is that old buildings ugly or otherwise are generally much less environmentally efficient than their more recently constructed neighbours.
Ask anyone unfortunate enough to live in a grade II-listed home and they’ll talk of their frustration as Historic England tells them they can’t change the original windows, which rattle in the breeze while the government is exhorting us to save energy.
McCloud referenced the current debate over M&S on Oxford Street, which has already involved mayor of London Sadiq Khan and Michael Gove, as Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities secretary, where he argues the building is not structurally unsound and, therefore, should be retained. But it is undeniably as inefficient as any building of that age would be, and as retail habits change the impact on this iconic store is what is happening to large department stores across the world.
The developers, who want to build something more suited to the 22nd century, argue that the new building will be built to levels of precision using the most advanced materials so that the operational carbon savings will outweigh the quantum of embodied carbon within the first two decades of its life and, thereafter, be a greater saver of carbon than its predecessor will ever be.
This does not mean that demolition is any more the panacea than insisting on refurbishment. But it does suggest that the debate is much more nuanced than McCloud, great man that he is, and The Architects’ Journal would have us believe.
Steve Norris is chairman of Soho Estates and Future-Built
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