Skip to main content

Restoring the urban fabric with circular thinking

Refurbishment By Jordan Kirrane, Associate Director, Sustainability – 21 March 2024

Close up of a carpenter working with wood


Jordan wearing a black suit standing in front of a plant

Jordan Kirrane

View bio

Despite the term ‘circular economy’ being new in the property sector lexicon, the concept itself is as old as Stonehenge. In fact, the notion of demolishing useful things simply to make room for creating something different was considered somewhat barbaric and anti-social up until the early part of the 20th Century.

Slum clearances and razing of plague-infested hovels aside, useful buildings with structural integrity were generally extended, adapted, refurbished, and restored, because materials were often expensive, difficult to procure, and limited in supply.

Similarly, consumer goods such as clothing, shoes, wagons, pots, and pans were also generally repaired as needed to make them last longer. Milk bottles were returned and refilled. Glass jars and ceramic cannisters were simply ‘food storage’ not ‘zero waste plastic-free food storage’.

The upshot of all this was less drain on raw materials and resources to keep people in basic needs like housing, workplaces, appropriate attire, and provisions.

Given the urgency of reducing emissions and slowing the rate of biodiversity loss associated with resource extraction and expanding urban footprints, buildings, and products we re-use, restore, and represent a low-cost opportunity to make an immense difference to the future of the planet and all who dwell on it.

Where we start

One of the first steps is to overcome reluctance to invest in the knowledge stage of repositioning a building. By this I mean the initial condition audit and subsequent design and planning stage of a proposed redevelopment project. Most buildings (unless they are completely decrepit or have a degree of contamination that cannot be remediated) are candidates for adaptive reuse or refurbishment.

And in today’s construction sector, the expertise is there to undertake forensic condition assessments of every part of a building and design upgrades that maximise retained materials and building services components.

An embodied carbon assessment on existing assets, one of the possible outputs from an initial condition audit, is rapidly becoming mandatory in some jurisdictions. The City of London, for example, requires an embodied carbon audit and whole life carbon calculations for any proposal for knock-down-rebuild or substantial renovation.

The Green Star Buildings tool from the Green Building Council of Australia also requires an embodied carbon LCA, and all carbon from demolition must be balanced through carbon offset purchase.

Suddenly, demolition looks a lot more expensive than reuse!

Another advancement in the market that enables effective, low carbon solutions for sweating the asset while generating less embodied carbon waste is the proliferation of options for prefabricated, modular, and systematised lightweight, low-carbon building elements.

From the developer and builder perspective, there is also a budget case in that what is retained does not need to be procured. It will almost always cost less to adapt an existing building than start again from a cleared site. The supply chain also is likely to be simpler.

Materials and methods

Rooftop space that is currently underutilised can be transformed through the addition of engineered timber and steel hybrid flooring and wall systems into new, additional levels of residential, commercial or hotel space. These additions can be designed for optimising passive thermal comfort and energy efficiency, incorporate solar PV in shading elements for facades, open-air balconies and atriums for crossflow ventilation and rooftop amenities including productive gardens.

The notion of ‘shop top’ living is not new. In central Paris, the Hausmann plan saw mid-rise dense developments that combined retail, commercial, hospitality, and residential floors in four to five storey walk-up buildings. Many main streets in Australian towns and cities still have flats above shops, but these dwellings have often been converted into commercial space or storage space.

From the urban planning perspective, to ensure affordable housing for key workers in retail, hospitality, cleaning, and administrative services – some of the lowest paid workers in advanced economies – creating new residential space above existing retail, commercial and hospitality assets simply makes sense.

What does not make sense is expecting these low-paid workers to spend two or more hours a day (and a significant chunk of their pay checks) on public transport getting into the central business district for their shifts.

There is also an urban vitality win when more people live in the centre of the city. It helps arts and culture to thrive, creates a grassroots sharing economy and builds the business case for investing in shared public amenities such as street beautification, cycling facilities, parks, galleries, childcare and libraries.

The social value lens

Another major opportunity is capitalising on the broader society becoming more responsive to the reduce-repair-recycle approach.

The ‘right to repair’ for consumer goods including electronics is an emerging trend that smart developers can capitalise on through creating space for repair workshops in the heart of the city. This is quiet, relatively clean, and highly skilled work that has both a social value dividend and an environmental benefit.

We are already seeing a growing trend of people purchasing items of better quality and then looking to maintain and repair them.

This is an area of social value we need to pay attention to – the creation of opportunities for skill building in trades and expertise that we risk losing from our community. Developers and property owners can and should start monitoring the degree to which they are supporting a thriving and diverse talent base in society.

It would also be valuable for state governments and councils to consider perhaps offering incentives for developers that are prepared to embrace the social value case for reinventing existing buildings rather than replace them with more brand-new carbon-intensive gleaming towers.

The circular thinking we need most of all is temporal circles – looking back at past practices, then bringing the smart ones into now. Perhaps then we can then move forward sustainably.