Leading Cities: Retrofitting old offices; the new black

A sparkling new office with a high green star rating has become a status symbol for leading companies, and rightly so. The design principles involved in sustainable buildings also make for exciting, people-friendly workplaces, and reduce the company’s environmental footprint.

But the wildly successful rating system established by the Green Building Council of Australia led to an unanticipated problem that has only been redressed in the past few years: a focus on building anew, and not retro-fitting out existing offices.

Why is this a problem? The answer is to do with more than economic prosperity, but that is the focus of this fortnightly blog: how can we build our cities to foster economic prosperity and not diminish it?

The environmental problem is a simple one: buildings are the single biggest contributor to the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. In Australia, commercial and residential buildings contribute 23 per centre of our greenhouse gas emissions, the GBCA tells us.

But knocking buildings down and rebuilding them can be a worse environmental outcome than retrofitting them.

I suggest that retrofitting become the “new black” for leading companies; with one caveat that I will explain.

The GBCA has changed their stance on rating buildings to account for the environmental impact of demolition, by taking into account the cost, and the re-use or disposal of materials.

For a city to thrive, economically, it needs the interest and heritage that a variety of building ages provides. One reason that the 1960s and 1970s are hated eras of architecture (although they are my personal favourites) is the tendency for developers to knock down old houses and commercial buildings willy-nilly in favour of the new.

The Hub, in Melbourne’s CBD, comes to mind (readers in other cities, do offer up some examples of your own). It’s a new version of the old idea of a serviced office – a collegial communal workspace with hot desks rented by the hour, day, week or more.

It’s an old space transformed, full of character, with high ceilings, solid walls, generous spaces and a lift that is straight from Film Noir. Filled with modern desks and chairs and speckled with plants, it is the building itself that is inspiring and charming, not just the people who run and inhabit it.

This issue is a delicate one – I am not in favour of slavishly preserving old buildings; the view that old buildings have character and the new do not is ridiculous. Modern offices – think of the National Australia Bank in Melbourne – are exciting and very human, with fresh air, lots of natural light and a range of places to meet, talk, work and eat.

But I am in favour of leaders applying their wit to appraise existing buildings against a checklist that might include:

  • Does the character of the building add to or reflect the values of the company?
  • Can it be bought up to modern environmental and technical standards, with double-glazed windows, external shading, better air-conditioning and upgraded technology infrastructure?
  • Would it be cheaper to retrofit than to rebuild?
  • Would it be less harmful to the environment to keep and retrofit it?
  • Would it harm or help the surrounding city environment to replace the old building with a new one, or vice versa?

The New South Wales Government is leading the way, announcing recently that its committed to improve the energy efficiency of 150 government buildings – including hospitals, courthouses, motor registries, fire, ambulance and police stations and disability care facilities – as part of a $6.4 million program to improve energy efficiency in the NSW public sector.


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