What is Sustainability in the Built Environment?

Eighty Twenty is Partisan’s fortnightly roundtable event, where we invite business leaders connected with the built environment to have breakfast with us and discuss the issues that matter to them.

This time we discussed sustainability within a regeneration strategy, and if, in practical terms, it will mean better buildings and a willingness to refurbish. Not just knocking things down and starting again.

Between Strategy and Construction

The region has a policy for development – the Greater Manchester Spatial Framework, or GMSF.

This is an ambitious plan, which aims to address issues of homes, jobs and the environment, with a focus on making the most of Greater Manchester’s brownfield sites, regenerating town centres and having a minimum target of 50,000 affordable new homes.

How realistic is it though, to bridge the gap between strategy and actual construction? Is this kind of plan sustainable?

There are very real, practical concerns to do with the supply chain, and what can or cannot be accomplished by builders.

The danger is that GMSF will be too ambitious from the outset, taking too long to become policy, and therefore, will get watered down inevitably.

Two things to consider: one, that it is pointless designing something which cannot be constructed; and two, that no planner wants to be involved in something where the final verdict is – how did it ever get through the process?

Dirty Old Town?

In the light of GMSF, what sort of condition is Manchester in right now?

Yes, the city centre is undergoing huge amounts of development and expanding outwards, but is there any coherency between the various developments involved in this?

Manchester is not a Copenhagen or Barcelona. It does have a kind of beauty of its own, but it has one foot in the past of its industrial heritage, and one in a future that seems very high-rise.

On the one hand, there are redevelopments of this heritage that are reshaping it for residential use; but on the other, there is the impulse to keep building upwards, transforming the city’s skyline.

Could Manchester become a greener city? There are green areas around it, such as Peel Park, Philips Park and Barracks Park. Is there a strategic and practical way of highlighting them and their walkable distance from the city centre?

Would the greening of the city make regeneration more sustainable?

The Need to Build

However realistic or not the GMSF plan is, the need is there to build more homes. The population of Manchester is growing rapidly.

As problems go, for professionals involved in the built environment, working to meet more demand is a much better position to be in than finding demand has diminished.

Building quality developments requires a firm leadership hand. Manchester is fertile ground, but this still requires a responsibility for those involved in developing it to get it right.

The Responsibility to Get It Right

What do we mean by sustainability?

One answer is, buildings that last. With residential buildings, on leasehold agreements, the assumption is residential buildings will have a lifespan of 100 years plus.

With commercial buildings such as modern offices, the picture is different, with many only lasting around 30 years in comparison.

With the rush to develop, is the danger that many buildings might not last the length of a mortgage, never mind a leasehold agreement?

Is there an assumption of built-in obsolescence, which might also be driving the urge to knock things down rather than refurbish them?

Refurbishment vs New Build

Where is the incentive for developers to refurbish an existing property and develop a new use for it, even if it is not a listed building?

New builds can benefit from a zero rating, and there are VAT implications for contractors or builders.

The default option seems to be for apartments. But does this ignore issues of community or culture, and would these be better addressed through refurbishment of already recognisable structures and landmarks?

For regeneration to be sustainable it must listen to a multiplicity of voices, and be prepared to absorb different approaches and perspectives within an overarching strategy.

The practical side to regeneration needs early involvement in developing strategy, which means involving builders and contractors earlier in the process.

Is GMSF too ambitious to be coherent and joined-up in its approach? Is the danger that money does all the talking and design is left behind?

This week’s guests and comments

Guests at this Partisan Eighty Twenty breakfast event included:

Jeffrey Bell, Jeffrey Bell Architects
Bernadette Bone, BB Heritage Studio
Katie Delaney, Maybern Planning
Shelagh McNerney, Independent Consultant
Patrick Ross, Generation
Gavin Watts, Define

“Great to talk & share experiences about the built environment.”
Shelagh McNerney

“Thanks William and Daniel for organising. A useful way of meeting up and catching up as well as finding out what others current issues are.”
Patrick Ross

“Thanks for the invitation to take part – good to take time out from the day to day, to talk about wider trends and issues.”
Katie Delaney

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