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As Retrofitting is leading the way for the building industry, governments and businesses worldwide are increasingly investing in retrofitting projects. The benefits are seen to reduce the carbon footprint, but the approach also brings challenges.

One of the most hotly debated topics in urban development and real estate right now is the retrofitting agenda. Many see retrofitting as a green answer to building upcycles.

According to architect Susan Jayne Carruth, partner in 3XN, there is a good reason for that:

If you look back just two years, the retrofitting agenda had not taken off yet. Now carbon is king! We are more educated, and collectively we are getting a deeper understanding of what needs to be done to reduce our carbon footprint – and retrofitting or transforming existing building stock is a necessary approach. 

Retrofitting refers to the process of modifying, upgrading, or upcycling an existing building or structure to improve its energy efficiency, performance, or functionality, and Susan Jayne Carruth thinks the agenda is changing the way architects work:

You can’t just see buildings as objects anymore. You have to see them as part of a system – of flows of energy and material. This pushes us as an industry to be more creative – more sophisticated, she says.

Retrofit first or retrofit only.

It is not only architects who are approaching things differently these days. In cities across Europe, political momentum is changing the construction industry as city leaders embrace a more circular mindset, paving the way for a paradigm shift in urban development.

This has led to a more politicized approach to real estate in many European cities, where policy tools are used to halt new projects in favor of retrofitting existing structures.

One city that is committed to investing in retrofitting is London. Sadiq Khan, Mayor of London, wrote on the London government’s webpage on 14 December 2022:

Improving our buildings is the most effective and critical action we can take in response to the cost of living, energy, and climate crises…. Delivering the scale of retrofit required will mean retrofitting over 210,000 homes and 26,500 public and commercial buildings each year. 

For the industry, it calls for clarifying whether the retrofit-only or a retrofit-first approach is the right way to go.

If retrofit-only is adopted more widely, it raises the question of how cities, developers, investors, and the real estate sector can adjoin and if the industry can meet the needs and requirements set by the cities.

While many industry partners agree that retrofitting first is the more sensible approach, in some cases, the complexity or state of a building means that retrofitting is not the best solution, not even from a carbon perspective.

Retrofitting Project Quary Tower Designed by 3XN

The Quay Quarter Tower in Sydney was named World Building of the Year in 2022. The skyscraper was built around the structure of an existing building and has been dubbed the world’s first upcycled skyscraper. Photo: Courtesy of 3XN © Adam Mørk

Carrot or stick

As cities try to determine how to best drive change, industry partners see two schools of thought: carrot and stick. For now, cities seem to prefer rewarding innovative developers, but at the same time, national legislation in many EU countries is posing restrictions.

Carruth, who has worked on retrofitting projects in cities like Sydney and London, points out that retrofitting must be evaluated on a case-by-case basis:

The more we can reuse and retain, the better, but each project has to be evaluated individually. This also means that design is becoming more forensic as we have to map existing materials – not just in terms of quantity but also quality, she says.

Many players in the field hope for systemic change to allow the industry to transform entire neighborhoods rather than just individual buildings. For this to happen, a change in regulations must happen.

For investors, however, a vital issue remains. The numbers must add up on the asset sheet for an investment to be made. In some cases, investing in retrofitting may not be financially feasible or cost-efficient.

This exposes the dilemmas of the urgent need for immediate actions and investors’ willingness to take on less profitable projects than in the past. As such, the industry hopes to see more grants, subsidies, and policy innovations in the future to support and speed up the transition.

Takeaways from the MIPIM discussions

 The question of retrofit first or retrofit only was at the center of discussions when BLOXHUB and Urban Land Institute during the March MIPIM 2023 in Cannes hosted a roundtable about retrofitting. MIPIM is known for bringing together leading organizations in real estate and city leaders from all over Europe.

For Carruth, the informal and intimate roundtable debate is precisely what the industry needs:

These are rare moments to openly discuss the challenges the retrofitting agenda gives us. Frank discussions allow us to learn from each other – to figure out the scale of things and how to go about it, she says.

Retrofitting projects in Europe – examples

As the retrofit agenda is gaining momentum in cities all over Europe, the push for change is coming from both citizens and city officials.

An example of a push from below is in the Polish port city of Gdynia, where structures from the 1930s and 1950s are not meeting the requirements of today. Still, local citizens refuse to allow their demolition as the structures are seen as part of the city’s identity.

In a city like Brussels, citizens are also a driving force for keeping existing structures. At the same time, the London government has adaption a strategy where the retention of existing buildings must be the starting point for major London developments.

In Copenhagen, industrial areas that would have previously been demolished are now being preserved and are considered an invaluable part of the urban identity.