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Tackling Climate Change: Lessons and Opportunities from the Pandemic

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Written by:

Professor Christopher Tweed,

Chair in Sustainable Design,

Welsh School of Architecture,

Cardiff University.

Earlier this year, the former governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney, claimed the death toll from the climate crisis will be much greater than the Covid-19 pandemic. He is not alone in sounding the alarm. In July, Glasgow Caledonian University’s Centre for Climate Justice published a report declaring climate change to be deadlier than the pandemic. It recommended that governments keep the public informed with real-time data about the impact of climate change, as they have done for the pandemic. Recent briefings from the IPCC call on governments to progress adaptation measures to cope with inevitable change as well as mitigation of further change. The built environment has an important, and increasingly urgent, role to play in both strategies.

Disruption caused by Covid has created opportunities for making the built environment more sustainable, and the United Nations has urged governments to use pandemic recovery funds to ‘jump-start’ low carbon initiatives. Previously these opportunities may have taken years to emerge, but now they confront us and force us to make difficult choices. Responses to the pandemic have propelled long running conflicts between values to the fore – such as balancing reduced carbon emissions against the need to travel – and demand their early resolution as we decide the shape of a post-Covid world.

Perhaps the most surprising response to the pandemic is how quickly we adapted to new ways of using space. The transition was so rapid, and relatively painless, that many now doubt the need for dedicated offices, with high rental values in city centres. But opinions on a return to ‘normal’ are divided. Some organisations, spotting an opportunity to reduce their office footprint, argue that a large proportion of workers should continue to work from home for at least some of the time. Others believe face-to-face working is essential.

Similar arguments question the need for expensive retail space in cities following a shift to online shopping. One report suggests at least 10% of retail space in the UK will need to be repurposed in the short to the medium term. Owners of large retail centres are already seeking to repurpose empty space. Hammerson, owner of Westquay, Brentford and Birmingham’s Bullring, has suggested vacant space might serve as food halls, events spaces and roof-top theatres, as well as the more conventional homes, hotels and office space. There is a circular economy for buildings as well as their components and materials.

This is not a new idea. In the 1970s, the Welsh architect Sir Alex Gordon coined the phrase ‘long life, loose fit, low energy.’ It is hard to find more prescient advice and buildings designed accordingly then should be ripe for repurposing today. But as Stewart Brand reminds us in How Buildings Learn, the best buildings are never finished and evolve to meet the needs of different occupants for centuries, if designed with that intention. Of course, academics and practitioners working in heritage and conservation have urged a prolonged life for buildings for many years, primarily to protect recognised cultural value. However, we can broaden the criteria to see the entire stock as a potentially valuable resource and store of already expended carbon. Every repurposed vacant space avoids having to dig more stuff out of the ground. Why build new if existing spaces already exist that can meet the same need?

Therein lies a problem. Ideas for repurposing are often based on simplistic floor area calculations and assume a parity of quality. But a square foot in someone’s home is qualitatively different to a square foot of office space. Offices often have deep plans with limited access to the external environment, and may be difficult to reuse as homes because of the need for daylighting and fresh air. Context – location, entrances, circulation space – is also key to satisfying the needs of new purposes.

Without thoughtful scrutiny and treatment there is a risk repurposed space will offer a sub-standard offer to those who are deprived of alternatives. As we have argued elsewhere, circular economy in the built environment needs social innovation and engagement from communities. Service design can help. Co-designing of existing spaces for new purposes – a co-re-designing or core designing – is essential for happy outcomes. Appropriate reuse of buildings adapted through co-design (or co-re-design) seems an obvious route to follow to reduce future carbon emissions. But aside from the technical issues, this strategy poses difficult questions for the construction industry and others. How will those who currently make a living from developing new projects adapt to a shift in direction? How can we wean cultures and economies off ‘the new’?

That pandemic has taught us that we ignore looming crises at our peril. The built environment has important contributions to make. But none of this will happen without major changes to how buildings are procured. It will require vision and imagination to create financial incentives (less/no VAT on refurbishment?), new legal and insurance frameworks (to facilitate serial multiple occupancy of spaces), new business models and a commitment to co-re-design. Most of all, it requires political will and that ultimately boils down to the values we prize as a society and how strongly we want to uphold them.