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Climate and Construction: ‘Down with demolition,’ say construction industry strategists

John Bleasby
Climate and Construction: ‘Down with demolition,’ say construction industry strategists

A controversy in the United Kingdom concerning Marks & Spencer’s flagship store on London’s Oxford Street spawned a 2022 public inquiry over whether to demolish the art deco building and similar buildings around it or attempt to restore the façades.

While the U.K. controversy is literally an ocean away, it’s a subject that deserves attention in Canada.

Demolition and refurbishing each host a series of conflicts. One involves the instincts of architects. 

“The truth is that, as a culture, we destroy far too many old structures every year and architects are often complicit in this,” writes Ben Flatman, architectural editor for Building Design. “While most of us accept the need for retaining some buildings of historic interest, there remains a strong tendency towards seeing new-build as best. But such an approach is fast becoming out of step with the times.”

On the other hand, and as seen with London’s Oxford Street, questions are often raised concerning the quality of an original building’s structure.

Many feel that aside from a historic façade, the useful life of the building’s bones can, in fact, reach an endpoint, thus making it impractical to refurbish.

There is also the issue of carbon emissions throughout the entire demolition and rebuilding process, not just through operations.

This complicates a discussion that revolves around money. The prime locations occupied by older buildings can make the demolish-and-build option compelling for various financial reasons.

Embodied carbons represent a large proportion of emissions over a building’s lifetime.

But using regulations to force an older building to reduce operational carbons without offering tax or other incentives could compel owners to demolish and rebuild, despite the overall negative carbon impact for the planet.

“Whether retrofitting a building turns a profit naturally depends to a large degree on its purchase price,” writes Mike Phillips, correspondent for Bisnow London.

“And the picture is mixed about whether buildings that need a significant upgrade to meet energy-efficiency requirements are being sold at a deep enough discount to justify the capital expenditure needed to improve them.”

Writing for the CBC, Sarah Sheehan comments, in her observation, Canadians often view older buildings as a liability, whereas “much new development still operates on a ‘take, make, waste’ model — an extractive model for growth that’s the opposite of sustainable.”

Tony Selwyn, head of environmental planning at U.K. survey firm, Plowman Craven, argues that better strategies need to be employed concerning the procurement and reuse of materials.

In particular, he advocates “advancing digital technologies” to aid in the ordering of more precise volumes of materials, and to use 3D, 4D and even 7D BIM capabilities to predict whole lifecycle carbons and costs.

“The potential savings should not be underestimated, especially for large-scale, lengthy and complex projects with many moving parts.”

Progress can only begin when designers and owners agree on the path forward for a project. Sheehan references remarks made by Susan Ross of Carleton’s Azrieli School of Architecture and Urbanism.

“By the 20th century, architects had completely bought into a real estate process that had made obsolescence its rallying cry, not yet recognizing how unsustainable the cycle of destruction and construction can be.” 

Flatman suggests designers need to develop a new mindset, alongside a presumption against demolition, unless a strong case can be made.

“As architects, we need to expand our definition of the concept to embrace social and mental sustainability. This means recognizing the benefits that communities often accrue from their familiar historic streetscapes. In order to achieve this step change, we need to lose some of the heroic and ego-driven tendencies that too often pervade our profession, and embrace a new role as patient custodians of what surrounds us.”

He even suggests architectural students be required to undertake at least one project involving the retention and reinvention of an existing building.

“The ‘progressive’ architect’s justification for demolition has always been that, by retaining too much of the old, we stifle progress and creativity. But this argument won’t wash anymore.”

John Bleasby is a Coldwater, Ont.-based freelance writer. Send comments and Climate and Construction column ideas to

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