Aegon Asset Management: The second greenest building: the one not demolished?

We were happy to see a new application of our adopted principle: “The greenest building is the one not built”. Not so long ago we read that the approval for demolishing and rebuilding the M&S store on Oxford Street, London had been refused by the secretary of State, Michael Gove. The main argument was that it: “fails to support the transition to a low carbon future and would overall fail to encourage the reuse of existing resources, including the conversion of existing buildings”. Ironically, we also read about a just-completed residential development: Mast Quay Phase II, which is to be demolished as ordered by the local council, although in this case it is the developer that aims to keep the building intact (surely for economic reasons). The tables have turned. Nonetheless, in helping to settle this latest issue, we would like to quote the senior director at Expedition Engineering: “did anyone stop for a second to consider the waste of embodied energy”.

The proposal to demolish the M&S store was not without reason. The CEO of M&S insisted that the many retrofit options explored did not provide a good alternative. The initial argument given on the planning permit was that the status quo would risk partial vacancy at the site, which would “intensify the concerns for the vitality and viability of Oxford Street” (ie, economic/social arguments). The order to demolish Mast Quay Phase II also had its reasons. The developer of the scheme (following the insolvency of the original developer) took liberties resulting in a completed building that deviated on at least 26 points from the original planning permission. The council wants to hold its ground and set a clear precedent.

The M&S process had seen people from various interest groups like SAVE Britain’s Heritage, Architects’ Climate Action group and Climate Action at The Institute of Structural Engineers voice a clearly different opinion on the matter. In the case of Mast Quay Phase II, we have seen a former council member support the decision of the current council to stand their ground, indicating that 15 years ago this would be resolved with a ‘fudged solution’. Nonetheless, there is increasing critique of the current decision by the council, especially because of the recent M&S precedent. We would also have expected that the environmental damage from the demolishing and reconstructing of an otherwise structurally sound building would be fully recognized (and included) in UK planning decisions. However, none of this was mentioned; even the (already moved in) residents of the scheme were informed via the press.

Regardless of our opinions, the recent ‘Mast Quay Phase II’ decision will certainly go legal, just as M&S stepped up the battle and launched a legal challenge against the Oxford Street decision. We hope attention will be given - as a priority - to embedded carbon issues during both appeals and that an alternative solution can be found on the Mast Quay Phase II residential block.

Increasingly the option for a full-scale re-construction of a building will no longer always be available. You cannot easily ‘redevelop yourself’ out of a bad (unsustainable) investment idea for economic reasons. The quality of the current assets in a portfolio including location, energy qualities or ability to retrofit easily, become even more important. Likewise, councils will need to improve oversight, checks and controls, and should be limited in their retrospective enforcement options.

Michael Gove may have just been “playing the galleries” as accused by M&S CEO. He is someone, however, that would be aware of where political winds are blowing and they are blowing in the right direction in our view. No matter the reason, the clock is ticking - priority to #Retrofit, #Reuse, #EmbodiedCarbon first!


How it started … how it’s going.  Mast Quay Phase II as approved (left) and as built (right), view looking North

Source: Royal borough of Greenwich

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