Throwing carbon in the skip – the case against demolition

POSTED ON October 13, 2021 BY Terry Levinthal

A blog from our director Terry Levinthal on the often overlooked loss of embodied carbon when a building is demolished

On a day best described as “Business as Usual”, three interesting items caught my attention yesterday.

The first was a tweet from the previous day from Green Councillor Alex Staniforth and member of the Council’s Planning Committee that noted the Cockburn’s views on carbon management and demolition at a recent Committee meeting.

Secondly, a report in the Edinburgh Evening News of the ongoing demolition of the former Grain Silo in Leith.  A quick delve into our archive confirmed that the Cockburn had objected to the demolition in May 2011 and then again in 2015 on the grounds that the category B-listed building was an important part of the city’s industrial heritage. I was particularly taken by striking images of a crane dismantling the iconic structure that appeared to be largely made of concrete.

The third was a BBC news piece titled, “Building strategy to look at embodied carbon, says government

So why did these three get my interest?  Well, simply put, the core message was identical.

Councillor Staniforth’s tweet referred to a Cockburn deputation to the City Council’s Development Management Sub-Committee on 8 September. The application was the proposed demolition and redevelopment of Centrum and Bupa Houses at the corner of Fettes Row and Dundas Street.  The scheme was to replace these rather unattractive late 1970’s offices with new housing and ground floor retail.  The Cockburn had no issues with the proposed new uses and believed that a housing-led scheme on this site was acceptable in principle.  Also, we supported the idea of an animated street frontage.

However, we found the proposals did not reflect the quality, residential character and scale of adjacent properties and are, as such, quite inappropriate for this location.  The appeared as a dated almost speculative architectural type without a clear ‘residential’ character and one that does not respond well to the neighbouring Georgian architecture on Fettes Row.  All expected stuff from the Cockburn.

That’s not the main point. We also advocated that the existing sub- and superstructure, which we assume to be reinforced concrete, be retained and reused.

Why? Well, in line with Edinburgh’s vision to be carbon neutral by 2030, citing the recently published Climate Strategy 2030, the Association believed (and believes) that demolition and redevelopment was not an appropriate response on this site.  No apparent attempt to reuse or repurpose any of the existing structures were evident.  This would have limited the carbon footprint of the proposed new building.  We saw no impediment in terms of floor plates or floor to ceiling heights that would mitigate against this reuse of substantial parts of the existing structure.

As such, and considering carbon management in the round, we argued that the proposals are inconsistent with Policy Des 6 Sustainable Buildings which states,

Planning permission will only be granted for new development where it has been demonstrated that: a) the current carbon dioxide emissions reduction target has been met, with at least half of this target met through the use of low and zero carbon generating technologies”.

Simply put, the existing building represented a massive investment in carbon and energy already, and to simply throw it into the skip would be wrong on many levels.

We were very pleased that members of the Committee received our views openly and constructively.  The Senior Planner present at the DMSC meeting suggested, with some justification, that this was beyond the scope of the policy and very careful consideration would need to be given if this argument were to be used to refuse consent.

In deliberation, the Committee accepted this word of caution but not without the Convenor suggesting it was a very important point and would make a very interesting “test case”.  Other members suggested the new draft City Plan 2030 (still at that point to go to the Planning Committee for approval) was the better place to introduce the concept of embodied energy and carbon as a valid planning matter. Our advice was positively received, but the application was ultimately refused on design grounds.

The BBC news piece on the question of embodied carbon reported that UK Government Business minister Lord Callanan told a recent conference that it [embodied carbon] was “one of the areas we want to look at”.  It highlighted that “engineers now say existing buildings should be kept standing due to the amount of carbon emitted when original building materials were made – known as embodied carbon.”

Furthermore, it reported that “Making steel, concrete and bricks for buildings creates a lot of carbon, with concrete alone causing 8% of global emissions.  As a result, climate experts are urging ministers to make it hard for developers to demolish buildings without first exploring ways to refurbish and extend them.”

The chairman of the government’s advisory climate change committee, Lord Deben, said “we need to think differently” and “It’s not acceptable to pull buildings down like this. We have to learn to make do and mend.”  He added that there needed to be a planning law to stop giving permission for demolitions, adding: “We are simply not going to win the battle against climate change unless we fight on every front.”

According to the article, “experts said one simple step would be to make firms planning large scale developments to calculate the total impact on the climate before starting work – something that is already mandatory in several countries”.  It added, “The engineering giant Arup calculated around 50% of the whole-life emissions of a building could come from the carbon emitted during construction and demolition.”

As already noted, the Institute of Engineers now suggests demolition needs to be avoided and the Royal Institute of British Architects has also recently reportedly shifted their policy position to favour retention over demolition. So, the Cockburn’s advice to the Development Management Sub-Committee in September echoes this emerging national thinking.  Its rejection therefore was more a reflection of outdated policies than unsuitable or unreasonable advice.

The idiom the most sustainable building is an existing one has never been for appropriate.  What this all means for Edinburgh remains to be seen.  The City Council could and should change its planning policies to explicitly make demolition unacceptable in most cases and require adaptive use in all cases unless utterly convincing evidence can be shown that this is not possible.  Perhaps a new demolition/carbon loss tax would incentivise the development sector to think harder about retention of existing structures.

A quick read through the final draft Written Statement of the proposed new Local Development Plan – City Plan 2030 – suggests this counsel has been heard.  A new policy ENV7 Sustainable Developments proposes that any scheme that replaces an existing building should have a carbon assessment of the whole-life carbon footprint of it compared to the option of re-use.  This seems like a good start.

However, a more detailed read suggests a lot of get-out-of-jail-free caveats including putting it in the hands of the developer to explain why they consider their proposal justified “for example because the new development provides additional floorspace and/or dwellings compared to the existing building”.   We can’t imagine it will be too hard a task for Edinburgh’s development sector to explain why they need more!

If we are serious about climate mitigation and the desire to be carbon neutral by 2030, a radical paradigm shift of policy is required.  This means saying no to loss of embodied carbon that demolition inevitably involves.  No ifs, ands or buts.

There is clearly a long distance to travel before Scotland’s and Edinburgh’s planning system is truly carbon ready!

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