Building conservation as a method of meeting sustainability targets in the built environment

This week’s blog comes from James Ritson of the
University College of Estate Management. He was the speaker at our most recent energy seminar, where he discussed the often overlooked and unique factors in meeting the challenge of reducing energy consumption and lowering emissions when dealing with historic built environment. You can also download his slides as a PDF.

Shambles, York

Cities have been constantly changing since the dawn of civilisation and for the first time in human history, more people are living in urban and suburban areas than in rural settings. This trend of urban growth according to most experts will continue throughout the 21st century.

While our cities continue to grow and develop the question on how to adapt this often historic urban and suburban landscape to the challenges of climate change, sustainability, population growth and urban decay remain open to debate. There is an urgent need for the man-made environment to lower carbon emissions and reduce pollution, while at the same time adapt to population growth and a changing retail and working environment. This means that our existing cities need to adapt and change.

Our cities are not just a place of work and dwelling but have an identity and the very fabric of our cities are related to our memory and culture. Recent events in Paris have shown what a building can mean to a population as a whole, but this meaning and understanding are not only applied to the great and important buildings but to our existing environment as a whole. While making our existing cities more sustainable we have to make sure we do not lose this connection to our past and present culture.

The term sustainability is often used when referring to environmental factors however truly sustainable development recognises and respects environmental, economic and cultural aspects of the site, the triple bottom line. One of the most recognised definitions of sustainability comes from the Brundtland Commission in 1987, ‘Development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs’. However, it has been estimated that between 60% to 80% of the buildings that will be standing in 2050 have already been built. Therefore, if we are to have a sustainable future, dealing with the existing built environment is critical.

Sustainable development is often a balancing act between environmental imperatives, budget constraints and cultural acceptability. This study proposes that one of the most sustainable approaches to the existing built environment is not a sustainability-focused regeneration, but a design and refurbishment methodology based on the principles of conservation. Modern conservation is not purely based on preservation but on the management of change of the built environment.

The study proposes that the focus of individual building refurbishment should be given a subordinate role to policy, planning and infrastructure improvements. The alterations to our historic built environment should be focused on the preservation and the study show that considerable energy savings can be made without significant alteration to the historic fabric of a building. While other studies have shown that historic buildings can be converted to be zero carbon or close to the target of zero carbon, the financial cost of adaption and the alteration to the historic fabric is far too high to be applied in the mainstream.

However, with a focus on maintenance and benign changes, considerable energy and carbon saving can be made to individual buildings which could be widely applied.  One of the key aspects of this conservation-based approach to individual buildings it the focus on maintenance and benign changes to the building. These benign changes include draft proofing, improved and updated boilers and heating controls, low energy appliances and lighting, along with general building maintenance.

These changes can have a considerable impact on the carbon emissions and energy consumption of the building. One is the findings shows there is typically a key turning point in the sustainability refurbishment process when further changes only have a limited impact on reducing energy consumption and the related carbon emissions but have an ever-increasing financial cost and increase in the damage to the historic fabric.

The aim is to reach this key trigger point is the balance of the triple bottom line in all existing buildings. A key part of this decision-making process lies in the cultural and social understanding of our existing cities. While at the same time understanding of the financial costs and the requirement to reduce the environmental impact our of existing cities. 

Another key part of this proposal is the conceptual shift in the cultural understanding of our urban landscape and a change in planning priorities. This cultural understanding is based upon the identification of what gives a particular space its identity. By identifying what is significant about each urban space it can help planners, developers and users make better more sustainable decisions about that environment. Such as, what is key to the genius loci, what needs to be preserved, what can change or even lost or replaced.

Another key aspect is about deprioritising the car in urban planning and prioritising more environmentally friendly forms of transport. Most of existing cities and towns were not designed for an increase in vehicle traffic and with an ever-increasing urban population and our cities will not be able to cope. Many of these changes are more based on planning policy and decision making and less about large scale physical redevelopment.

Cities always been a blend of the old and the new and rather than been a regressive attitude to urban redevelopment, the plan of integrating new urbanism and building conservation principles can result in a triple bottom line sustainable future for our historic and existing urban areas. Allowing for new development and increasing density in our urban centres. Greater integration and connectivity will allow our cities to grow and adapt to our future challenges and targets.

James Ritson

James Ritson is an architecturally trained building conservator specialising in sustainability and recording of the historic built environment. He is currently the programme leader for MSc Building Surveying at University College of Estate Management. James was previously a senior lecturer in sustainability of the existing built environment at Kingston University, teaching on the Architecture, Surveying and historic building conservation courses. James previously worked in practice on a variety of projects, including the Palace of Westminster, Beverly Minster and many smaller historic and residential schemes.

James is a member two ICOMOS (International Council on Monuments and Sites) Scientific committees; the UK National Scientific Committee on Digital Heritage and the International Scientific Committee on Energy and Sustainability. James was made a fellow of the Royal Geographic Society in 2010 for his work on sustainability of the built environment. He has published widely on sustainability, health and conservation issues and his main research interests are sustainability of the existing built environment and the recording of existing buildings.

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