With presentations by three leading retrofit advocates, a recent webinar hosted by TDUK University Design Challenge 2023 offered insights into climate-responsive retrofit from the perspectives of an architect, engineer and landscape architect.
Despite its critical importance, retrofit is not, yet, common practice – and is likely to be one of the biggest challenges in many practitioner’s careers. With a need for all of us in the industry to learn more in this area, the #TDChallenge23 Widemarsh Pavilion invites multidisciplinary groups of students to propose a retrofit scheme for an old cricket pavilion in Hereford. By reimagining the existing architecture and surrounds, the competition seeks to provide an opportunity for participants to learn together and to carry this learning through their careers.
Considering the particular and interconnected aspects of retrofit across architecture, engineering and landscape architecture, the webinar’s speakers also reflected on the competition’s potential for expanding understanding of what retrofit can be in the context of community and spatial ownership.
Systems thinking rather than linear thinking
With the built environment responsible for about 40% of our carbon footprint, Sara Edmonds, architect at Built Environment: Smarter Transformation, underlined the need for a collective move away from the status quo approach of extract-produce-consume-waste.
Considering what it might mean to build nothing new, she emphasized that this certainly doesn’t mean there is nothing to be done. Rather, it requires from us a deep understanding of what we are building with and where our materials come from. Edmonds believes that retrofit opens up a generative systemic way of thinking about the structural system we operate within, providing us the opportunity to improve a myriad of things – such as air quality, biodiversity and housing conditions – as well its potential for creative storytelling.
“There’s never been a more creative time to be an architect. It’s not the shiny new building that makes you an architect: it’s the way you think that makes you an architect.”
Considering the range of ways that retrofit allows for transformation without destruction, Edmonds also drew attention to the importance of retrofit for the spaces between buildings, for engagement with communities and for social cohesion.
From how to why
Reflecting on the engineer’s role in regard to retrofit, Natasha Watson, from Buro Happold, looked at some of the main changes over the last 12 years.
With an ever-greater focus on carbon reduction, Watson identified a far more interrogative approach to briefs. Here, she laid out the four tenets of construction from the Green Construction Board: firstly – if possible – to build nothing; to build less; to build clever (such as by using low carbon materials); and, finally, to build efficiently with those materials.
Typically considered to be ‘how’ people, Watson has seen a shift in engineering towards becoming more about the ‘why’. She observed that engineers are increasingly being employed earlier on in projects and that this time allows them to formulate concept options for focused interventions, making sure that the right ones are taken forward for lighter touch buildings.
“The sooner you talk about carbon, the bigger the impact you can have.”
She highlighted the importance of improving industry understanding around levels of reuse. Of moving away from binary thinking about either reuse or restart, and recognizing there are, in fact, many layers of things that can be considered for reuse, existing on different time frames – from social use, to stuff, to space plans, to services, to skin, to structure, to site. Similarly to Edmonds, Watson emphasized the holistic necessity to recognize that carbon is not the be all and all – and that retrofit can also support important issues including health and inequality.
Mitigation and adaption
The final presentation, by Kate Blackburne from Exterior Architecture, discussed the evolving role of landscape architecture in retrofit projects. Here, Blackburne outlined some of the new policies that have seen an increased understanding of the landscape architect’s role, including sustainability certifications (e.g. BREEAM); Biodiversity Net Gain policy (which requires a minimum 10% biodiversity increase across the site); London Urban Greening Factor policy; life-cycle analysis; and carbon calculations. To help meet these, landscape architects are also increasingly being involved earlier in projects.
Through an approach of both environmental mitigation and adaption, landscape architecture can regulate temperatures; manage surface water run-off; creatively reuse demolition material; and increase resilience to extreme weather. Blackburne described how key strategies such as specifying materials at design stage; planting fauna most suited to the site; and capturing and harvesting water can help to create harmony between how a landscaped environment functions for nature and for people/use.
With each of the speakers emphasizing the criticality of working together as a group for retrofit projects, the webinar showed how architects, landscape architects and engineers can all fill in gaps for each other.
“None of us can meet all the sustainability requirements alone – without each other.” Kate Blackburne, Exterior Architecture.
Further Learning Resources
For more information on the #TDChallenge23 Widemarsh Pavilion and getting involved, see https://timberdevelopment.uk/design-challenges/climate-responsive-retrofit/.