What Will it Take for the City Centre to go Green?

The cry for retrofit over new build is loud. In planning matters, development budgets and both corporate and individual consciousness, retrofit is a serious consideration. Earlier this year we voiced Woldon’s role in the Future of Retrofit 1. With incoming net zero policy for the high street, Woldon, along with Built Environment Networking, have been discussing how the construction industry can answer the call to arms for the high street to go green.

Stockton-on-Tees Council's fresh and bold vision for Stockton town centre. Image: Stockton Council

The Government’s Challenge to the Retail Industry

“The UK was the first major economy to embrace a legal obligation to achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2050” 2. To achieve this, the Government’s Ten-point plan is intended to trigger the UK’s second Industrial Revolution. This time it will be green. With the Future Home Standard underway, commercial buildings are next. One of the most pressing among the measures is the requirement for commercial properties to comply with a minimum Energy Performance Certificate (EPC) rating of ‘B’ by 2030  3. What does this mean? 1.4bn sft of existing retail stock needs improvement 4. Why is this important? Failure to meet the target means property owners cannot levy rent. The scope of the change is enormous, the investment gigantic, yet the time to implement short. This is the Government’s challenge to the retail industry.

While what and when is clear, how and who is not. The ownership pattern of the city is fragmented: more than 60% of retail is in the hands of small independent owners. For the thriving high street, density of varied use classes supports one another. For the declining high street however, it makes collectively mobilising change difficult. Without overall direction decline hits and investment falls. Investment falling accelerates decline, worsening investment, and so on.

As for what: the question of retrofit versus new build can be complex. Much retail stock was built in the last century and expected to last thirty years maximum 3, so renovation or replacement is often overdue. A low energy retrofit can be synched to the cycle of building maintenance or, in some cases, is energy performance deficit so severe only new build is viable? Even with Whole Life Carbon Assessments by RICS 5 weighing new build versus retrofit is not binary. Architectural heritage, community value and sense of place are also issues that, while less measurable, affect a sense of place.

High Streets and Town Centres: Built Environment Networking Debate 2022. Image: BEN

Is Retrofit-Retail the Answer?

The question of improving energy performance of retail prompts a wider question about the future of high streets. While more affluent town centres are thriving, retail’s struggle is clear. With a surplus of retail stock 4 of between 20 and 40%, repurposing of failing retail assets is required. The response needs to cater to local residents’ needs; it should be bold and imaginative, and with it comes the opportunity for the necessary energy performance upgrades.

This is the question the local authority in Stockton-on-Tees are taking on to transform their town centre. If the local modernist shopping centre is failing for socio-economic reasons then there is no reason to invest in its sustainability either 6. Stockton has more radical plans. Instead, the shopping centre will be demolished. A riverside park will take its place. This future of retail isn’t shopping alone: it is public realm next to civic amenities next to mixed uses, revitalising the way people inhabit a sense of place. Stockton show that sustainability challenges are a chance to open up wider questions on how city centres should evolve altogether. The challenge isn’t just about energy certificate compliance. It’s about totally revitalising the built environment.

The Design Process

Woldon finds the city as an ongoing project. It is where questions of how we live together are felt keenest. The city self-regulates. Its metabolism churns economic, social and cultural digestive tracts together. Parts of the city that sustain themselves, that draw life, can be described as having a ‘city-ness’. Yet this quality is not always so resilient.  Cities also require design. Design is not only the aesthetic: it includes meeting the regulatory framework, fulfilling client aspirations, understanding commercial viability, and now, controlling energy performance. This must all be intrinsic to the design process.

Woldon Vision

“There is no single solution for the city centre” 3. That is why design is required. As design professionals, Woldon embraces the idiosyncrasies of environments to generate fresh solutions. Where capital commitment is required, so is design commitment. Designed in the right way, our clients ready to invest do not just see better rent yields and offshoot developments: social, economic, and cultural values are boosted altogether. The high street makes its own success.

Fit for Purpose = Fit for Environment = Fit for Place

To revitalise the high street needs vision. We are proud to work alongside forward-thinking clients to prepare for the future. Our combined expertise means we know that fit for purpose and fit for climate must be the same. And fit for community, fit for place, fit for living. All sit under design.

The urgency is clear. 2030 is not far away. The Government has issued a challenge to the industry and the private sector needs to answer. This is a chance to reform the built environment. It will require vision, boldness, nerve. Far from being restrictive, the EPC retrofit challenge is a creative opportunity for improvement and change.

[1] “When we build, let us think that we build forever” – The future of retrofit, Woldon Architects, 2022
[2] The ten point plan for a green industrial revolution https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/the-ten-point-plan-for-a-green-industrial-revolution
[3] (Session Four) The Net Zero challenge – Making High Streets Fit for Purpose; sponsored by savills https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YnfZgApWTKY
[4] Re:Imagining retail – How will retail places go green? Savills, 2022
[5] RICS Whole life carbon assessment for the built environment, 1st Edition
[6] Forget shops: how one UK town ripped up the rule book to revie its high street