Embodied carbon is back in the news with the recent announcements that Birmingham’s Ringway Centre is set to be demolished along with the former ITV studios on London’s South Bank. Both new proposals will result in the sort of boxy, looming developments architects will be very familiar with these days and there is a fair argument that neither development really gets the most public benefit out of two central urban spaces with fantastic potential.
But to play devil’s advocate, Birmingham’s war on Brutalism has already been won, with the sad destruction of the Central Library perhaps its last stand. Just as few brummies will weep salty tears over the jumble of exposed stalls and urine-soaked subways that was the old Bull Ring. The Ringway Centre of the same Brutalist era may one day just be associated with traffic jams on Smallbrook Queensway, cramped shops and a seedy nightclub.
The ITV studios site has been a stretch of nothingness on the South Bank for a while. The new plans are far from the worst proposal to hit a stretch of river that once narrowly avoided Southbank Centre’s confused Festival Wing redevelopment proposals. And thankfully, neither the South Bank nor the centre of Birmingham have been overwhelmed by anodyne high-rises (although you may ask, ‘why start now?’).
I’m damning with faint praise. Both decisions set a bad precedent for decarbonising our built environment. The material, waste and carbon footprint of both schemes is unnecessarily high as developers push to increase profitability. Yet there is an inkling that there is something worthwhile in each of these projects.
If you want a truly unimpeachable example of why we need robust standards around reuse of existing buildings and embodied carbon, perhaps you’re better off reading the latest planning application for the aptly-titled 1 Undershaft commercial skyscraper by architect Eric Parry.
Mandatory independent assessments of larger developments’ whole-life carbon footprints would call time on frivolous ‘carbon bombs’ and encourage retrofit
Proposed for the City of London, the building must be up there with the MSG Sphere in Stratford and Foster + Partners’ Tulip as one of the most tone-deaf planning applications of the last few years.
The environmental cost of the project is excessive. No fewer than 1,400 vehicle trips to the site – near the middle of London – are expected just to deconstruct an existing commercial skyscraper on the original site.
And then you have the 3,500 trips expected in July 2026 during the peak of construction – or around 175 a day – with construction planned to finish in 2030.
Building the scheme will require more than 170,000 tonnes of concrete, 12,200 tonnes of steel, 2,000 tonnes of glass and 2,600 tonnes of plasterboard.
The most telling statistic, and one not to be found in the application, is that in September last year, office occupancy levels in the City of London were reported to be a paltry 29.8 per cent.
All three developments highlight a bigger problem: that we need to move on decisively from the mercurial and inconsistent nature of how whole-life carbon and waste is examined in planning. In short, we need to introduce tough, mandatory, and fully independent assessments of larger developments’ whole-life carbon footprints. This would bring increased clarity and the benefits of quick wins and improved market development by introducing the concepts of whole-life carbon and embodied carbon early in the design process. It would call time on frivolous ‘carbon bombs’ and encourage retrofit.
Avoiding demolition would not only reduce the embodied carbon associated with the built environment but dramatically cut the five million tonnes of construction and demolition waste that Defra estimated is sent to landfill each year plus the 26 million tonnes of excavation waste that is not recovered. To deconstruct the Ringway Centre, you will probably produce a Ringway Centre-sized amount of building waste. It all has to go somewhere and it’s sure as hell not being sent back to the owners.
The detached, tunnel vision approach to planning from some clients has led to contradictory, expensive and drawn-out decision processes. This has been true of the MSG Sphere but has also been echoed on some projects where the carbon cost has been an issue such as Marks & Spencer’s high-profile plans to demolish and rebuild its flagship Oxford Street store.
As the climate and biodiversity emergency worsens, the construction industry is getting behind the concept of embodied and whole-life carbon regulation. Yet the government continues to kick the can down the road in what is likely to be an election year in the UK.
The Construction Industry Council has joined the RIBA and IStructE as one of 11 organisations demanding UK political leaders mandate the reporting of whole-life carbon emissions for all projects with a gross internal area of more than 1,000m2 or that create more than 10 dwellings. The plan is to introduce legal limits on the upfront embodied carbon emissions by 2028. Architects love a challenge – think HTA’s impressive retrofit of a Victorian Warehouse to create its new London HQ – and perhaps ‘retrofitting’ the building regulations in this way is the fix we all need.
Matt Mahony is policy and public affairs manager at the Construction Industry Council