By Amelia Womack

There is a current surge of sustainability hitting the skyline of London. Increasing numbers of businesses are seeing that the grass is greener for businesses residing in sustainable buildings, with statistics showing that companies that consistently manage and measure their business activities through a lens of sustainability out performed their FTSE 350 peers in seven out of the last eight years.

But why are companies investing millions of pounds in either refurbishing their offices to meet sustainability standards, or looking into the new sustainable buildings that are currently springing up on London’s horizon. The answer isn’t just an issue of economic value, but also of social and environmental value.

Buildings are a vital consideration to any company that wants to reduce its environmental impact, or benefit from energy savings. Globally the built environment accounts for 40-50% of natural resource use, 20% of water use, 30-40% of energy use and around a third of CO2 emissions.

These constructions don’t just benefit companies due to the “low hanging fruit” of energy cost savings, but has an impact on human health and well-being with companies operating in sustainable buildings experiencing an increase in employee performance and a reduction of employees taking less sick days due to “sick building syndrome”.

These building also help future proof companies in a constantly changing market place that is gravitating towards current trends in only working with companies that have sustainable supply chains and measured and delivered sustainability programmes. Green buildings, whether here in London or in offices abroad, are a clear symbol of a company’s dedication to the sustainability agenda.

Companies have two options in their journey towards sustainability through their properties. They can either refurbish, or retro-fit the building with the latest in sustainability gadgetry, or take up residence in a new build property.

Retro fitting buildings can cost millions of pounds, however, in less than five years they will start to achieve a point of economic return. Many iconic buildings are taking the plunge into retrofitting with the Empire state building investing in a $13.2m retro-fit that created $7.5m in energy savings in three years, or even the Savoy in London that recently underwent a £100m retrofit that will save tens of thousands per annum.

In comparison, new builds take at least 50 years to have any kind of cost savings and, while analysing the different between the two opportunities, it’s important to recognise that here are many more buildings already in existence than will be built in the next 10-20 years.

Fundamentally, the initial environmental costs and impact of new build will always greatly exceed those of refurbishing and retro fitting a building. In both of these options there is an environmental cost of providing the materials and even transporting them, but inevitably the new build has a much higher volume of these costs. Looking at new build there is also a significant impact of the demolition of the previous building, or the decontamination of land on brown field sites that will also increase the buildings environmental impact.

Regardless of this, any new build in the UK should, theoretically, operate at a higher energy standard than a refurbished building. This is because there are institutionalised inefficiencies within any building, and through developing a building from scratch, the issues can to overcome through new technology or new thinking. Building such as The Shard, which has adapted some interesting sustainability innovations. It’s iconic façade is a ground-breaking example of reducing energy demand as it’s created with 11,000 specially designed glass panels that make up the exterior actually reduce heat from the sun by 95%, protecting occupants from the sun but also minimising the need for air conditioning. However, since the time that the architect Renzo Piano’s first visions of The Shard were developed in the year 2000, may advances and innovations have been developed in sustainability, meaning that now that it’s built, it’s already behind on the times.

Fundamentally, while analysing the differences between new-build and retrofit, time is the most important factor to consider. Once a new build has reached a point where it’s broken even with the initial environmental costs then it will be the lowest emitter of carbon, and have the lowers environmental impact going forward. However, considering that this can take up to 50 years, it’s clear that the UK would have missed many of its environmental targets by the time these points have been met. In addition, comparatively very few new buildings will be built compared to those already in existence. When there are so many benefits to each different property type, it’s important that London adopts a holistic approach of both of these avenues. If London is to meet our carbon targets and secure its place as a sustainable city then these adaptations need to be incorporated into all elements of architectural and business decision making, before it’s too late.