Rebalancing the scales for building re-use

This piece appeared in Property Week on 22 September 2023

Every existing building has a place in people’s memory and has been the site of happiness. Redeveloping Zodiac has taught us a lot about the ‘how’ of avoiding demolition: by inventing a new life for buildings and their surroundings, and getting the balanc

Although firmly on our agenda now, the property sector is going through the ‘five stages of grief’ in understanding that we can’t bulldoze our way towards a brighter future.  Denial – this is the way we've always built; Anger – we’re trying our best, but the goalposts keep moving!, Bargaining – surely a sustainable new-build is the best option?, and Depression – the industry just can’t make wholescale repurposing work. We’ve got some way to go before we get to mainstream Acceptance of the idea that our built environment, often so overlooked in terms of their impact on our lives and on the planet, can no longer be viewed as disposable.

Cost-benefit analysis is, ultimately, the way humans make choices. In many cases, the pioneers are forging ahead in demonstrating what policy and planning should be mandating, and their confidence in making future-fit decisions can be persuasive, shaping what we see as best practice. Common Projects is redeveloping a 1960s ‘utopian’ concrete office complex in Broad Green, West Croydon, into new homes, community-owned gardens and a nursery. The scheme, which we committed to in 2020, has indeed taught us a lot about the ‘how’ of avoiding demolition by inventing a new life for buildings and their surrounds. 

Thinking about it as a set of scales, with different aspects of development as weights on each side, we saw the impacts of new-build – both in greenhouse gas-release costs and in the ‘psychological’ effect of tearing down a local landmark (even one that has in recent years not been universally admired) – balancing against the availability and cost of funding – something heavily determined by the perceived risks involved. Getting the scales to come down on the side of the ‘right’ thing to do meant working hard to address this perception. Putting real thought into an evidence base for an investor to have confidence, and ‘take the risk’, meant communicating our delivery track record; building a narrative around the unacceptability of the old approach, and taking a tough stance on the scheme’s overall impact as the critical driving factor in development choices.

We are all, rightly, under the microscope when it comes to the ‘footprint’ of our businesses. Attracting partners with shared values, and both the short- and long-term perspective good development needs to have, was key. We’ve done this by demonstrating deep understanding of the market, of their drivers, of the schemes themselves – including the complexities of existing buildings. Truly understanding the advantages, and the common sense, of re-use has helped us present our projects clearly to our partners: councils, investors and communities.

The nitty-gritty: we are working with an amazing project team which understands re-use and loves the problem-solving and persistence it needs. Designing the right product for the right area: we’ve created a scheme that fits the market, supports the aspirations of local demographics, embraces the area’s character and plays into the existing building’s strengths. Working bloody hard on optimisation and on coming down on the right side of compromise (inevitable when working with existing buildings). Spending locally, and inviting people in: people care about their back yard. Being positive about the asset you have: every existing building has a place in someone’s memory, has been the site of happinesses. Appreciating the aesthetic and techniques of ‘older things’ and what they have to teach us.

Finally, having demonstrable clarity of purpose. By that we mean a commitment to creating value that supports the LONG-TERM wellbeing of society. Financial success, even growth, becomes a means to this end – not an end in itself. In our sector, we’re seeing increased appetite for investment from funding sources, particularly pension funds investing money on behalf of ordinary people with ordinary concerns, that share that same aspiration and choose ‘doing the right thing’ to ensure returns for their citizen stakeholders. This opens the door to reusing existing buildings: if in ‘appraising’ (in the widest sense) a project, one includes factors such as community impact, carbon emissions, effect on urban landscape, and attractiveness to younger customers, a scheme with an existing building at its heart suddenly becomes more viable – even more valuable.