Will Refurbishment be the Architectural Specialization of the Future?
The choice of Lacaton & Vassal to receive the 2021 Pritzker Prize was, above all, emblematic. Under the mantra “never demolish, never remove or replace, always add, transform and reuse”, the French duo built a career focused on renovating buildings, providing them with spatial quality, efficiency and new programs. Their approach contrasts with most of the architecture we are used to honoring: iconic, imposing and grandiose works. It also contrasts with the notion of the tabula rasa, of building and rebuilding from scratch, so well represented in Le Corbusier’s Ville Radieuse, and which has fascinated architects and urban planners ever since.
Whether because of the sustainability demands currently in vogue, or simply because there are already enough buildings around the world, the task of rehabilitating spaces and buildings has been seen as an important driver of change. The focus is generally to center efforts on interior spaces, paying special attention to the environmental quality and comfort of the inhabitants, in addition to adapting the uses to contemporary demands. The main question revolves around how to update (and even automate) the buildings of the past to adapt to new needs for efficiency, sustainability and well-being.
From simple layout and facade changes, furniture alterations to total building requalifications, the renovation sector has always mobilized a large amount of resources. With the COVID-19 pandemic and the sudden need to spend a lot of time at home and turn it into an office, school and gym, companies have noticed an increase, especially in Europe and the United States. Interfering in a constructed context may seem simple, but it carries numerous complexities. The reality is that refurbishment works are much more complicated and uncertain than those built from scratch, requiring very complete projects, but with some flexibility, more intense construction management and even changes during the process. For this reason, it is also important to have a specialized workforce and expert advice.
There is usually a differentiation made between the terms related to refurbishment, which may even vary according to countries and regions. For example, a renovation can be defined as the improvement or modernization of part of or the entirety of the existing structure. When the renovation is focused on updating current technologies and infrastructure to contemporary demands, the term retrofit is more used. The word rehabilitation is usually attributed to the type of intervention that presupposes a change of use in the program of the built building, but also aims at updating and reflecting on the spaces, as in all reforms. The same goes for other names like “refurbishment” and “remodeling”, which are all variations within the umbrella of “reform”. On the other hand, the term restoration is used when the building has a historical value and its intervention is generally guided by stricter guidelines, in order not to mischaracterize the original building.
Whichever term is used, when renovating a building, instead of demolishing it, a large part of the material resources present is taken advantage of, reducing the use and exploitation of raw materials, and in some cases, preserving the memory and the original urban fabric. Another factor in making renovations environmentally friendly is that by modernizing buildings, you can take the opportunity to make them more energy-efficient and comfortable for occupants. This can be done, for example, through better thermal insulation, better-sealed closures and modern glazing, with more sustainable and efficient heating systems, for example, which ultimately reduce energy consumption and related carbon emissions. In addition, there is all the energy used in the extraction, processing, transport, assembly, installation of materials, demolition and decomposition associated with the life cycle. The so-called Energy Renovation has been identified as a promising task for the future of architecture.
According Pierre-Emmanuel Thiard, “Renovating rather than building from new also means reducing land take and ensuring a better balance in urban ecosystems. Secondly, it’s a value-creating sector, which, as it develops, becomes a significant creator of local jobs. Lastly, energy renovation facilitates the physical well-being of building occupants, and contributes at a number of different levels to reducing fuel poverty and boosting spending power.”
The initiative launched in June 2020 by the European Commission, called “Renovation Wave” proves the global importance of this sector. The report points out that buildings are one of the biggest sources of energy consumption in Europe (accounting for more than a third of carbon emissions in the European Union) and that currently around 75% of buildings in the EU are not energy efficient, with a very low annual renewal fee. The renovation of public and private buildings is an essential action and was identified in the European Green Agreement as a key initiative to boost energy efficiency in the sector and meet their goals. The strategy aims to double annual energy renewal rates over the next 10 years while seeking to reduce carbon emissions and improve people’s quality of life.
Based on the article by Katarzyna WARDAL, a member of Euroace (European Alliance of Companies for Energy Efficiency in Buildings), Covid-19 revealed unacceptable housing inequalities in Europe, with millions of Europeans confined in low quality environments, exposed to cold and humidity, but which are also extremely expensive to maintain. The energy renovation of buildings on a European scale is a win-win way of achieving climate neutrality.
The French conglomerate Saint-Gobain launched in 2021 the Manifesto “Commitment to renewable energies (ENGAGÉS POUR LA RÉNOVATION ÉNERGÉTIQUE)“, which points out that energy renovations are highly necessary for the planet, as they significantly reduce the energy consumption of buildings, improve the comfort of life, lower energy bills and create new non-relocatable jobs throughout the entire chain involved in civil construction. The document addresses how the ambitious plans to support energy renovation, over the last 15 years in France, ended up having little practical result. In addition to developing healthy and sustainable materials and solutions that bring comfort and performance to living spaces, the company has focused on offering advice and expertise to projects, putting clients in contact with qualified professionals; training more than 10,000 artisans each year in environmental issues and allocating employees’ work time to advise on renovation projects for the benefit of the most disadvantaged.
The initiative is interesting because, as already mentioned, renovations and reforms depend extensively on specialized labor, technical knowledge and an industry of civil construction materials. Government resources are essential, but it is vital that they are properly set in place so that they help those who really need it. In Brazil, for example, there has been a struggle for some years for the enactment of the Free Technical Assistance Law, which allows free public technical assistance in housing projects for families with reduced monthly incomes. It is a public resource fund that makes it possible to hire architecture and engineering professionals to build and renovate homes.
This paradigm shift also tends to change the focus of professional practice and even the training of new architects to – instead of giving more value to iconic buildings built from scratch – develop better forms of intervention in existing buildings. This includes everything from making the process of surveys and documentation of works more complete and didactic, to disseminating materials and construction techniques that can increase the energy efficiency of renovations.
Is a highly efficient and modern building really sustainable if it had to first demolish an old structure that worked properly, in order to be built? This is the main question of this article by Thomas de Monchaux. The future of architecture may be more focused on adapting what already exists than building anew. And, since it is a sector that consumes huge amounts of resources and emits a lot of carbon, it can also be an engine for economic recovery, whose product can be more comfortable and efficient housing and buildings for its inhabitants, taking into account and respecting their particularities. It is a field of architecture that still has a lot of room to grow and looks very promising. By bringing together professionals and the entire industry involved in civil construction, the result can be quite impactful. It is essential that architects are prepared for all these challenges.