University clients among those opting for refurbs over new builds

Architect HLM is planning to more than double the amount of refurbishment work it carries out in the coming years amid a booming market for energy-saving retrofit projects.

The practice is expecting retrofit jobs, which currently account for around 15% of its work, to “rise quite rapidly” to at least 35% as clients increasingly opt for refurbishments of existing buildings ahead of new builds.


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The transformation of empty shops like the Debenhams flagship on London’s Oxford Street will see the UK’s high streets overhauled, although some former department stores are facing demolition

HLM’s head of design Philip Watson told Building Design that the types of projects up for grabs in recent months have made it “pretty clear” that retrofit work is becoming more prevalent, particularly among clients managing large estates such as those in higher education.

He added: “Universities are gearing up to make their estates more covid proof, they’re trying to address the net zero carbon agenda and I think there’ll be far fewer brand new, big, blingy buildings with a £70m price tag.”

He said the major driver behind the trend was a growing awareness of climate change. “I think the climate emergency issue has come to the forefront of people’s minds and they realise that just knocking down a building and replacing it with something big and blingy to attract students isn’t the most sustainable way to develop your campus.

“And universities have all set targets for themselves around carbon and reducing carbon so that’s in people’s minds.”

Emma Keyse, higher education business development manager at Morgan Sindall-owned fit-out firm Overbury and trustee of the Higher Education Design Quality Forum, said universities are coming under “increasing pressure” from students to improve their sustainability credentials.

She added that tightening purse strings were also a factor: “There’s a lot of uncertainty around funding in the sector and it’s often far more cost effective to re-use existing buildings, than demolishing and reconstructing.”

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London School of Economics director of estates Julian Robinson, who has commissioned some of the biggest names in architecture including RSHP, Grafton and O’Donnell & Tuomey to design signature buildings, said the financial impacts of the covid-19 pandemic meant there was a “desire to make better use of what you’ve got, especially with the advent of new ways of working and most importantly the carbon reduction agenda”.

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Uncertainty over whether overseas students, a major revenue generator for universities, would return in the coming years in the same numbers as before the pandemic and Brexit is also fuelling the changes.

HLM’s Watson said the situation had “given people a little bit of time to take stock and be a bit wiser about their existing estate”.

Swathes of empty retail units in town and city centres look set to be repurposed into different uses, with HLM working on schemes which involve turning shops into events and office space.

And this week AHMM launched a consultation on plans to refurbish Debenhams’ Oxford Street department store.

The proposals would see new cladding installed on the existing building and three upper storeys added to house office space at the collapsed retailer’s flagship.

Federation of Master Builders chief executive Brian Berry, Parity Projects managing director Russell Smith and Green Party peer Natalie Bennett will be discussing what the drive for retrofitting means for the UK construction sector in a Building magazine webinar tomorrow morning.