Now that Glasgow has emptied and the citizens have reclaimed their city in the wake of COP26, we all have a responsibility not to let the dust settle on the hard-fought policies and discussions agreed in the small hours.

Now, businesses and individuals must actively consider what actions they are taking to tackle the global climate crisis.

It is critical the construction sector is amongst these and reassessing our approach to the built environment must be the starting point.

A recent report steered by the Royal Academy of Engineering urged the UK government to stop buildings being demolished. They say that the construction industry should, where possible, re-use existing buildings and recycled materials, as opposed to building new by default, with the built environment accounting for 42% of the UK’s carbon footprint.

The National Wales: Nick Durham of BDPNick Durham of BDP

This is a shocking statistic and as architects, engineers, designers and urbanists, we have a responsibility to find creative solutions to address this.

Yes, we desperately need high quality housing, future-fit health and education facilities and city centres that thrive, but there’s a much bigger picture at stake. Not to mention that there are lots of opportunities emerging to ensure this shift in thinking translates to reality.

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With the pandemic having caused the retail sector, in some cases, catastrophic challenges, high street vacancy rates have been significantly exacerbated. Many businesses are taking a hybrid approach to their working practices with staff working partly remote and partly in the office. Factors such as these mean there is space ripe for repurposing and refurbishment.

Prior to the pandemic, the Welsh Government launched its ‘Town Centres First’ strategy to help breathe new life into declining urban area by encouraging the public sector to locate services in town centres, repurposing empty buildings, introducing active travel measures, increasing activity and greening public spaces. Changes in our working patterns and leisure activities, combined with the pressing climate emergency have helped bring this to the forefront of people’s thinking.

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In Swansea, with a number of transformational regeneration projects already under its belt, the Council is in the early stage of delivering its vision for a city that is a vibrant, 24-hour, living, working, and leisure destination.  

Earlier this year BDP prepared a repurposing strategy for the city centre which set out potential interventions to address both the impacts of Covid and the changing nature of the UK retail sector and consumer needs. The plans will see a range of buildings refurbished and repurposed for living, working and leisure, including new potential uses for the vacant properties in the retail core, alongside investment in public realm and green infrastructure. 

Potential interventions include retaining the former Debenhams building as a retail unit, introducing a new street food market with links to both the Quadrant Shopping Centre and Swansea Market, where the entrances would also be improved, and enhancing key gateways in and out of the city centre with public art and more greenery.

Meanwhile, a repurposing or refurbishment-first approach to support ‘decarbonisation’ of our built environment is at the top of everyone’s agenda. 

Our recently opened refurbishment of the Bute Building for the Welsh School of Architecture is a great example of how intelligent targeted interventions can help breathe new life into existing buildings and significantly reduce the carbon impact for our clients.

This is especially important for the healthcare sector with a complex energy intensive estate which is often in poor condition and can take considerable time to redevelop. 

The National Wales: The Bute Building in Cardiff's Civic Centre. Photo: BDPThe Bute Building in Cardiff's Civic Centre. Photo: BDP

The UK-wide Nightingale project illustrates how quickly we can respond to demand to re-purpose existing buildings. At BDP, we were part of the award-winning team which transformed Cardiff’s Principality Stadium into the Dragon’s Heart Hospital within just a few weeks.

 

Reusing and adapting existing buildings is something we expect to see much more of. As long as the right approach is taken to refurbishment, it can mean more sustainable, more cost-effective, and more interesting space for healthcare, education, the private sector and other community uses.

Architects, engineers, designers and urbanists need to step up to the challenge, but we also shouldn’t underestimate the impact our actions as individuals will have on the success of these spaces too, so let’s not forget to engage with our own communities.

Nick Durham is the head of the Cardiff studio at global design practice BDP, which is celebrating its 60th anniversary this year.

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