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Shaping up for retrofit

Matt Thompson

Architects must claim their place in a growing market

The first three parts of the RIBA for Clients programme looked at client sectors – contractors, housing, and local authorities. The fourth cuts across them by looking at retrofit.  Pure retrofit is a response to the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the biggest challenge of our generation. Despite barriers, the retrofit market is growing and likely to offer architects significant work opportunities as the effects of anthropogenic climate change unfold. 

The Climate Change Act (2008) is at the root of interest in retrofit, committing the UK to reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 80% (from a 1990 baseline) by 2050. Energy-efficiency standards in the Building Regulations are almost high enough to allow new buildings to help meet this target. But they will not deal with existing buildings, most of which will still be in use in 2050 and are likely to comprise 70% of the total stock. 

The consensus is that retrofit is the answer. Sunand Prasad, senior partner of Penoyre & Prasad and author of Retrofit for Purpose, quantified what this means in the context of the overall target: ‘We’re going to have to retrofit 3.5m non-domestic buildings and 26m residential buildings just for energy efficiency over the next few decades.‘ The potential work opportunity for architects looks colossal, but is it?

Strictly speaking, retrofit is specifically about actions to reduce buildings’ energy and carbon footprints. This is readily seen as a technical exercise where the kind of added value that architects bring, such as better spaces, improved layouts, or urban impact, is welcome but merely coincidental. 

The market tends to be split down domestic and non-domestic lines, mirroring the totally different building typologies and scales and thus unequal share of total emissions – domestic buildings create twice as many. The domestic retrofit market is incentivised through, for example, the Energy Company Obligation and the floundering Green Deal. The Green Deal was also conceived for non-domestic buildings, but never took off. Instead, non-domestic incentives are limited mostly to large energy users, for example through the CRC Energy Efficiency Scheme. 

At the moment, architects’ participation in housing retrofit is patchy. Although in favour, John Swinney, business development director for energy and public services at Carillion, explains, ‘There aren’t enough bigger housing projects. At no point has anyone said to me that we need to get architects involved.’ To those operating in the non-domestic market, though, architects are more active. Here, clients who retain an interest in their buildings are looking for concomitant added design value to make the numbers stack up. Talking specifically about retrofitting office buildings, James Pellatt, head of projects at Great Portland Estates, spells it out: ‘Well designed assets either lease quickly in a down market and we minimize our void periods, or command more rent in an up market.’

Successful retrofit arises from the ‘fearless synthesis of the sociological with the technical and aesthetic’ Benjamin Lesser, Derwent London

  • Benjamin Lesser, Derwent London
    Benjamin Lesser, Derwent London
  • Sunand Prasad, Penoyre & Prasad
    Sunand Prasad, Penoyre & Prasad
  • James Pellatt, Great Portland Estates
    James Pellatt, Great Portland Estates

The onus for architectural input must be on the user because they’re already using or living in the building. Indeed, the Technology Strategy Board’s recent Retrofit for the Future programme – a goldmine of publicly accessible technical data – revealed that performance in use falls short of design intent because of people’s foibles. To be viable for clients who retain an interest in their buildings, the retrofit must not only accommodate human behaviour but actively improve people’s experience of the building. To emphasise the point, Benjamin Lesser, development manager at Derwent London, thinks successful retrofit design arises from ‘the fearless synthesis of the sociological with the technical and aesthetic’. He believes strongly in post-occupancy evaluations wherever possible to learn lessons, and encourages ​­architects to do them. Gavin Summerson, BRE’s BREEAM refurbishment manager, agrees. Although there’s rarely a fee for them, he thinks it is possible to justify post-occupancy evaluations, or ‘good customer care’ as he puts it, on the grounds that they make you stand out from the crowd. 

Retrofit is a messy business. By its very nature there are more unknowns than in newbuilds, and clients are wary of such risks. This situation is made worse by the way a job might be divided up to different consultants without any overarching unity of vision. Nicholas Doyle, director of housing sector energy consultant Adecoe, says that the various specialists clash and, without anyone to translate for them, clients don’t know who is right or wrong. In his opinion, this is where architects can really help: ‘The trick here is for architects to be engaged, solve problems, and bring the team along without creating more problems for the client.’

‘Well designed assets either lease quickly in a down market or command more rent in an up market’ James Pellatt, Great Portland Estates

This function goes further in the non-domestic sector. Derwent’s Lesser looks to architects to orchestrate structure, fabric, energy and design to create beautiful architecture. ‘There are no real boundaries between energy and carbon and enjoyment of space. It doesn’t stop at architect and begin again at services or structural engineers.’

Indeed, the Centre of Refurbishment Excellence (CoRE) has identified the need for the ‘retrofit co-ordinator’, a role that Sum­merson thinks architects are well placed to take on. Architects’ strength, he says, is thinking of things the client has not, includ­ing occupant comfort, business benefit and ‘taking a holistic view of the design process’. Pellatt agrees, calling on architects to lead throughout the process: ‘We want architects to co-ordinate the team because they have the overall vision. Listen, adapt, respond, and then add creativity.’

‘We’re going to have to retrofit 3.5m non-domestic and 26m residential buildings just for energy efficiency’ Sunand Prasad, Penoyre & Prasad

Despite the potential, viability remains a major barrier. Clients dislike the lengthy payback periods of energy-saving interventions, are unconvinced by performance in use, and are suspicious of the value it adds, especially for single buildings. Even where there are economies of scale, the benefits are far from cut and dried, especially where there is no regulatory pressure to retrofit. Prasad acknowledges the problem but hopes architects can help by understanding how building performance translates into real returns for the client. ‘If architects can synthesize not only carbon and energy but also money numbers, argue for and deliver them, and take custody of what happens when a building starts to be used, then they will be providing just the skill that is needed.

For more information on training as a Retrofit co-ordinator visit


80% targeted cut in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050

70% existing buildings as percentage of total stock

3.5m non-domestic buildings in need of retrofitting 

26m residential buildings



1. Lead and co-ordinate the design team, maintaining the design vision and anticipating common risks to alleviate the burden on clients.

2. Learn how design improves building performance from post-occupancy evaluations.

3. Synthesize knowledge about carbon, energy and financial costs to prove the client’s business case.

4. Listen to clients’ needs and respond creatively.

5. Focus on the user experience of the building.


The RIBA’s Client Liaison Group is running a series of round-table discussions to listen to and understand external perceptions of the architectural profession and the value architects bring to the project team, and ultimately to identify the tools needed to promote architectural services in these sectors successfully.  The feedback from interviews with public sector clients is included here; and 60 second clips of the one-to-one interviews are available on


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