Decarbonising Policy
A campaign led by journalist Will Hurst at The Architects Journal to champion retrofit and reuse over demolition and rebuild, targeting regulatory, professional, and financial structures


In recent years, reductions in embodied and in-use energy achieved through green building technologies such as insulation have been eclipsed by increases in new, carbon-intensive construction. Emissions from these buildings, and the construction sector as a whole, continue to rise despite the need for rapid decarbonisation.1‘Building sector emissions hit record high, but low-carbon pandemic recovery can help transform sector – UN report’, UNEP, 16 December 2020 <> [accessed 18 August 2022].


“The greenest building is the one that already exists”2This phrase, from Carl Elefante, former president of the American Institute of Architects, has become a slogan of the Retrofirst campaign. See Architect’s Journal, ‘RetroFirst: The Greenest Building is the One that Already Exists (long version)’, YouTube, 27 May 2021 <> [accessed 16 September 2022].

Proposing that technologies alone cannot solve building’s carbon addiction, RetroFirst is a UK-based campaign that seeks to leverage government instruments such as tax, policy, and procurement, in order to transform building norms and incentivise retrofit. The campaign advocates not only material and technological processes, but a cultural shift in construction norms that moves away from extractivist modes of production and consumption to prioritise climate and social needs.3In the words of Ian Boyd, former Chief Scientific Adviser at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, “emissions are a symptom of consumption and, unless we reduce consumption, we’ll not reduce emissions”. Quoted in Roger Harrabin, ‘Climate change: Big lifestyle changes “needed to cut emissions”’, BBC News, 29 August 2019 <> [accessed 3 February 2023].

Noting that existing economic models incentivise wasteful processes, such as demolition and new-build, RetroFirst’s campaign makes three demands to the British government. First, to cut value-added tax (VAT) on refurbishment, repair, and maintenance from the current standard rate of 20%, to 5% or less (the rate for new build is 0%). Second, to use policy (planning guidance and building regulations) to promote the reuse of buildings and materials over new construction. Third, to insist that all public procurement consider retrofit, circular economy, and whole-life carbon accounting the first option by default. Whilst part of RetroFirst’s campaign makes new builds unfashionable amongst architects, and promotes retrofit as a design practice, it goes beyond simply raising awareness by proposing real economic procedures. 

Led by the architectural journalist Will Hurst, and launched in September 2019, the campaign uses the British publication the Architectural Journal (the AJ) as a prominent platform for its campaign. Creating the knowledge base for action, the AJ frequently publishes exemplary case studies as “RetroFirst Stories”, hosts annual retrofit awards, reports on and campaigns against high-profile demolition proposals, and publishes research into planned tax, policy, and legal changes. In June 2020, RetroFirst sent a letter to the British government, signed by over 250 supporters including the Architects Climate Action Network (ACAN), calling for reforms in areas of tax, policy and procurement.4Will Hurst, ‘RetroFirst campaign goes to government’, Architect’s Journal, 22 June 2020 <> [accessed 16 September 2022]. While government volatility potentially undermines this important call, the letter’s wide distribution and publication in the AJ bolsters a growing and shared knowledge base for decarbonisation and spatial justice.  

Spatial justice is an important dimension of Retrofirst’s campaign. Understanding climate and social needs as intensely related, the campaign highlights how demolition and rebuild schemes displace communities, financialise assets, and gentrify areas, chiming with the work of Civic Square and other community-focused climate groups. Targeting the systems that perpetuate extractivism, RetroFirst proposes a new approach to design and construction, and shows why this is essential both for social justice, and climate decarbonisation. 


External links

Demolition Watch London—a group campaigning for housing regeneration over demolition and replacement—the latter often resulting in significant displacement of existing residents, on top of the carbon cost 

Civic Square’s ongoing series Retrofit Reimagined’—exploring the interconnected economic, social, political, and other associated dimensions of retrofit implementation across scales