Retrofitting buildings is the greenest strategy - Martin Jarvie

The construction sector contributes hugely to global CO2 emissions and this is something the industry is currently doing its utmost to address. One solution is the refurbishment and retrofit of existing buildings.
Martin Jarvie is an Architect Associate at BDPMartin Jarvie is an Architect Associate at BDP
Martin Jarvie is an Architect Associate at BDP

A great example of this is BDP’s design of the University of Strathclyde Learning and Teaching Project . The top line is that adaptive reuse of the structure saved 67% of embodied carbon compared to a notional new build equivalent. Evidently, the greenest building is the one that already exists and while retrofit might not work for all projects, it should be considered before we resort to demolition and excessive new build as the default option. This requires a real shift in mindsets and as architects, we realise that old buildings have great stories to tell. Reuse and retrofit can not only slash emissions but give unloved buildings a repurpose, retaining their legacies.

Fortunately, more architects are championing retrofit and bringing clients onboard. The University of Strathclyde fully embraced this reuse ethos from the outset of the project. The University wanted to enhance the student experience with a central non-departmental social, learning and teaching hub. The fact that the existing Colville and Architecture Buildings occupied an enviable position at the heart of the Campus - adjacent to Rottenrow Gardens - made these buildings prime candidates for reuse.

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When the Colville Building was stripped back to the structural frame, the excitement began – the high floor to ceilings and large open spaces were perfectly suited to current learning and teaching methods. We created voids and inserted new open staircases to connect floors and created double-height spaces at entrances. A sweeping galleria was built linking the buildings. Accessibility issues were tackled with new entrances and the building was reclad to improve thermal performance and airtightness - bringing energy consumption down to almost half of the original energy usage. We only used materials that we needed - an approach with sustainability benefits that added to the spirit of the building. Whereas new builds might have to fake a history, this one had a story and we sought to celebrate this by exposing concrete columns and ceilings. Deceivingly, the exterior of the building can be mistaken for a new build, but the form follows the one that was there before and if you peer through the glass you see the truth - the upstands, the history.

University of Strathclyde Learning and Teaching ProjectUniversity of Strathclyde Learning and Teaching Project
University of Strathclyde Learning and Teaching Project

The final result is a plethora of learning and social spaces within this four-storey galleria - from informal places for group and individual study to formal teaching spaces, including a 400 seat theatre. The rehoused Student Union and Student Engagement and Enhancement services have gone from being on the peripheries of Campus to an integral part of student life. Our approach delivered on sustainability but also enhanced the student experience by creating a truly bespoke learning and social space.

There is a golden opportunity here to adopt adaptive reuse across the UK to reinvigorate unloved buildings and reduce our carbon footprint, as an industry. The shift is inevitable and while new buildings will continue to be built, there needs to be a rigorous decision-making process that considers retrofit first and foremost. We have a responsibility as architects to champion retrofit and to bring clients, policy-makers and aspiring architects on the journey with us - reducing the built environment’s CO2 emissions to protect the planet. Future generations depend on it.

Martin Jarvie is an Architect Associate at BDP

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