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Robin Pritchett shares his expertise at Bisnow’s ‘Making the future retro(fitted)’ panel

UK and Europe 26 March 2024

Left to right: Isabel Thomas (Shaftesbury Capital PLC), Adam Carney (Pinsent Masons LLP), Robin Pritchett (Cundall)

Three people sat down in a panel in front of a large window with Battersea Power Station in the background

Robin Pritchett, Head of Building Performance Services at Cundall, was part of the ‘Making the future retro(fitted)’ panel discussion at Bisnow’s UK office series on Thursday, 21st of March 2024. Located in 50 Electric Boulevard, a new addition to Battersea, London’s office catalogue, the panel was moderated by Adam Carney from Pinsent Masons, and Robin was joined with Isabel Thomas from Shaftesbury, Fergus Evans from Grosvenor, Richard Taylor from Workman LLP, and Ben Gillam from Thirdway on the panel.

As the cleverly phrased panel title indicates, the discussion was all to do with retrofit. The diversity of roles within the panel allowed for a variety of perspectives on retrofit in the built environment. Adam guided the conversation to unravel what the drivers for retrofit are, whether regulation and knowledge sharing needs to increase, and how collaboration play an important role in the retrofit discourse. Finally, the topic that cannot seem to escape anyone, carbon.

Adam kicked off the discussion by asking what pre-acquisition due diligence is required with an older office with a view to retrofit and refurb. From the real estate aspect, Isabel from Shaftesbury, noted that occupiers and customers look to strip a building back to its fabric. Things like natural light and floor to ceiling heights are an important consideration. When Robin addressed the question from an engineer’s perspective, he said, “it’s a case of understanding where the asset currently sits. For example, what is its benchmark in relation to net zero, and how long will it remain un-stranded. When you start to move through its net zero carbon (NZC) pathway, the question is how feasible the delivery of it is.”

Then the ever-perplexing question was asked – what are the drivers for retrofit - is it the investors, occupiers or regulatory authorities? Fergus, from Grosvenor, voiced that the ultimate demand comes from occupiers and the investment market naturally follows suit. He mentioned the additional strand of society as a driver, which becomes especially clear when it comes to retrofit of landmark buildings which steals mainstream media headlines. Society massively drives the debate of redevelop versus refurb. Robin shared a similar view that landlords and developers are keeping retrofit high on the agenda because of tenant demands and agreed with Fergus that society is the pressure that pushes retrofit. Richard, from Workman LLP, mentioned the need for tenants to attract talent within their companies. “The new talent coming through are asking employers questions about their sustainable credentials and those employers need to be in buildings that match that,” said Richard. When asked if regulation needs to be strengthened, Robin suggested that more clarity from the government on what the regulations in a few years’ time might look like is always welcome.

The conversation then moved to how office upgrades can promote flexibility and collaboration. “Whilst occupiers might be diverse, their problems are clustered,” said Ben from Thirdway. He added that the struggles tend to be within engagement, productivity and culture and so, it is important that spaces are designed in a way that they are alive to the fact that tenants are working out their problems as they live through it. Essentially, boiling it down to flexibility which makes the space much more attractive and enjoyable for tenants.

The discussion naturally shifted to education and knowledge sharing. The focus is starting to move from design for performance to energy in use. However, this requires more collaboration between landlords, tenants and occupiers. Fergus identified that occupiers focus less on embodied carbon and more on operational carbon, making retrofitting older buildings less attractive. However, the risk of a whole suite of older buildings becoming stranded remains. From an occupier’s side, Ben added that there is an overall lack of understanding what embodied carbon is. This is layered with occupiers looking at landlords to provide an education on the sustainability credentials of buildings. “As an occupier, tell me more,” he concluded. Robin added that as an industry, we are generally pretty bad at sharing data and that we need to be more open with what works and what does not. He said, “Usually, what holds us back is a fear of being seen as not doing enough or being accused of greenwashing.”

The topic of technology in buildings was identified as an area that can help drive efficiency in design and delivery of buildings. Robin addressed this by highlighting the challenges of maintenance, and that as a sector we need to be willing to pay for good facilities managers. He could not help but add a tongue-in-cheek comment in, “It is like designing a Rolls Royce and then take it to Kwik-fit to get the MOT and service.”

Finally, the question of whether retrofit is the only solution came up and that sparked a healthy disagreement. Ultimately, it is difficult to find an all-encompassing solution and there are various considerations that need to be taken to account. Isabel mentioned longevity being an important criterion when deciding whether to retrofit or refurbish. Fergus suggested a retrofit first but not the only option and Robin suggested taking things on a case-by-case basis. He noted that 80% of building in 2050 are already with us. So, we face a huge challenge in being able to decarbonise the existing stock, ultimately that is the most important thing.

If you are debating what to do with your existing assets and don’t know where to start get in touch.