New London Architecture

Retrofitting Historic Buildings: Implementation and Delivery

Monday 22 May 2023

Tom Burke of Westminster City Council reflects on our Conservation and Heritage Think Tank.

The likelihood of reaching net zero will in large part succeed or fail by how effectively we can improve the energy performance and reduce carbon emissions of our existing buildings. A challenge which must be undertaken at scale and at speed. Daunting as the figures are, around the number and cost of retrofits required to achieve this, the challenges become even more complex where these buildings are identified as heritage assets – typically listed buildings and buildings within conservation areas. For such buildings the retrofit challenge includes protecting our historic environment and this often means a more complex planning process; greater technical demands; and often more cost.

This Think Tank event sought to identify what the challenges are of retrofitting historic buildings in a central London context and sought to explore how they might be addressed. 

The event was hosted by Westminster City Council. With over 11,000 listed buildings and 78% of its land within a conservation area, Westminster is faced with both huge challenges and huge opportunities in this area. Presentations from Tom Burke and Anthony Jones, introduced Westminster’s Retrofit Task Force and provided an insight into the challenges of retrofitting Westminster’s own housing stock, which includes large and highly significant listed estates such as Millbank, Churchill Gardens and Lillington Gardens.

There was much common ground in term of the challenges, many not being exclusive to historic buildings, which included:

  • How to scale-up retrofit;
  • How can retrofit be funded;
  • How can the process of obtaining planning permission and/or listed building consent be improved to enable retrofit, while still ensuring that the heritage value of these buildings is maintained.

To address this, four themes emerged from these discussions:

  • Standardisation – Can good retrofit measures and their detailing become more standardised ? Allied to this, could decision making, particularly amongst and within local planning authorities, become more consistent on retrofit. It was acknowledged that listed buildings are difficult to apply standardised solutions to but there remains scope for refining what would be acceptable options. The benefits of standardisation and consistency would provide greater certainty to those planning retrofit projects;
  • Skills deficiency – in all facets of retrofit from education, through designers, decision makers and installers there remains a general paucity of the skill sets to understand retrofit. There needs to be a move from these skills being seen as niche to being common place;
  • Collaboration & knowledge sharing – is there a fog of information and initiatives around retrofit ? A better system for sharing information would aid issues such as standardisation and upskilling: case studies/pilot projects could be developed where projects have similar briefs, understand the data they want to capture and the results they want to achieve. A platform or network should be developed which is accessible to all and simplifies and clarifies good practice, removing some of the information fog;
  • Costs – while awareness of the importance of retrofitting is rapidly increasing; skills shortages are beginning to be addressed; and there is much innovation in retrofit technologies; the area which is perhaps most fundamental to moving the dial on retrofit and where the greatest need for innovation is required is in developing models to finance retrofit. 

The group agreed that understanding some of the main barriers and challenges to retrofit is important. Without this, the solutions will always be vague. A pathway to achieving a level of standardisation to retrofit designs and improving consistency in decision making is visible; and developing skills in the sector is happening; improving networking and collaboration will assist in these areas?. The elephant in the room remains how to finance and resource the challenge – a solution to this can seem elusive. But initiatives such as the task force are focusing attention on ways to address this. All were agreed that there are solutions which can deliver retrofit at greater pace but there is a need to avoid silos, work more closely to share information and ensure we accelerate the pace of retrofit to meet out net zero goals.

Conservation & Heritage



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