Building for the future: rethink, repurpose, reuse

Nick Russell suggests that a holistic view of site development could be the way forward

Praised in the verse of Hopkins and the pastoral scenes of Turner, the UK’s rural landscapes have long been a source of national pride. However, as the population increases and developers seek a solution for the housing crisis, some of the country’s greatest assets are at risk.

Fortunately, we have a wealth of robust, existing structures (and infrastructure) available to us, ripe for development. The Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) recently published research in which revealed we are currently sitting on areas of brownfield collectively the size of Birmingham (around 26,000 hectares) of which over half is ready for immediate development. Here exists a golden opportunity, from addressing the current housing crisis and overhauling our tired infrastructure network, to revitalising our struggling high streets and re-empowering local government.

It’s a positive vision, but first things first, the construction industry needs to have a more open discussion about brownfield sites and actively improve public and investor understanding of how these areas can be utilised, both commercially and socially.

In for the long haul
Presently we are faced with a number of hurdles. Chief amongst these is an attitude of short-termism. On face value, building on greenfield can seem like the most cost-effective option; you’re not confronted with the initial, significant expense of clearing land and managing contaminated materials. However, often it’s more beneficial and less wasteful to spend more at first to build sustainable structures with a long lifespan or retrofit a structurally sound building which could be given a new lease of life.

This raises further questions concerning our understanding of the term ‘value’ and how it relates to our client and end users as opposed to shareholders alone. Of course, I’m not suggesting that construction companies should not seek to turn a profit, but that, perhaps, we could start adopting a more holistic approach to the work we do.

This neatly segues into discussing another misunderstood term, ‘sustainability’, which has to go hand in hand with ‘value’ when discussing brownfield. The whole drive to build on the greenbelt and greenfield sites appears to be a regressive solution to our current needs, especially when you consider the CPRE’s finding.

What do we mean by sustainability? Is it merely making sure a building is as ecologically friendly as possible? I believe it means so much more. Surely the term also applies to delivering buildings which stand the test of time, designed for a period of time appropriate to its use, and equally structures which strengthen and benefit the local community. It’s time we empowered this word with a richer meaning and applied it to our standpoint on brownfield.

Think locally
All too often, buildings with an existing embodied carbon are replaced with a new development. Demolition might seem a safe option but is not always appropriate for the local area or beneficial to the welfare of local residents and workers. Superficially, it’s more financially prudent, but as we well know new buildings require further embodied carbon and environmental disruption.

One of the biggest challenges facing many communities now is the erosion of the high street as shopping and social habitats. The evolution of online shopping and big box retailers being a major cause. Maybe building on, or redeveloping, urban brownfield sites could provide local housing, working environments and other facilities which could give high streets a much needed boost, rather than unnecessary development of the countryside.

Waste not, want not
Complementing a drive towards redevelopment, we all need to be more committed to ‘designing out’ certain redundant or non-sustainable materials, which no longer have a place in housebuilding. Plastics are a good example. It is our responsibility, as construction experts, to specify more sustainable solutions, such as timber, recycling concrete and masonry and thinking about the eventual re-use of the materials we specify for redevelopment.

We should also give more consideration to second hand construction products. I have worked on a number of projects 19in the past where perfectly good materials are removed from site to be scrapped, when they could be given a new life in the redeveloped building.

Furthermore, we need to think about energy efficiency within the property, taking thermal mass and U-Values into consideration. Many existing structures can be successfully retrofitted to ensure greater energy efficiency without the need to knock everything down and start again. Good insulation is an essential requirement for modern housing and can have a positive impact on the homeowner/occupier’s energy bills, significantly reducing them.

Overall, we need to adopt a more holistic approach, taking the whole lifespan of a building into consideration, as well as its impact on the local community. More joined-up thinking is required.

Government has a role to play here as well, ensuring that we have appropriately funded local authorities who aren’t solely focused on balancing the books.

Making best use of the structures and materials available to us helps build stronger communities within existing ones, offering an economic and socially responsible solution to the current problem, rather than establishing new ones.

Nick Russell is a Director at Thomasons. Thomasons is a UK structural and civil engineering practice, committed to helping clients across UK business and industry build safe, efficient, cost-effective and sustainable environments. Established in 1947, the company is passionate about good engineering and draws on the latest design techniques and sustainable materials technology to create innovative and cost-effective designs.
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