The subject of sustainability and our built environment has been the topic of many recent conversations with our clients. In fact, these two areas of practice are now so entwined that it’s difficult to ignore, particularly with the incoming Labour party to the City of Westminster where a retrofit-first approach to development is likely to be favoured. 

This shift in in focus led to my involvement as a panellist at the New West End Company’s inaugural West End Climate Summit in London. My role was to bring a historic environments perspective and speak alongside eminent experts in sustainability about the opportunities and challenges facing the West End’s built environment and its role in tackling the climate crisis.

When we consider the role of built heritage in the West End, there are two facts that bring its potential role into sharp focus:

  • There are 11,000 listed buildings in Westminster, some of which are the most iconic in the country. To put that into context that’s about 2% of the total listed buildings in England.
  • 78% of the footprint of the City of Westminster is covered by conservation areas. That’s about 16.5 sq km.

We find a very high proportion of the built environment, particularly in the West End, covered by some form of heritage protection. In many ways that is absolutely right. Those listed buildings and conservation areas in the West End contribute to the richness of culture and architecture that attract so many of us; they are part of the West End’s DNA. However, what is different today than, say, 150 years ago, is there is a clear need for our built environment to adapt to climate change. The climate emergency simply wasn’t comprehended when those buildings were constructed.

That proposition presents certain questions and challenges – take the upgrade of historic buildings for example. In some ways what we now refer to as “retrofit”, is what we’ve been doing under the term “conservation” for over a century. William Morris established the Society for the Protection of Historic Buildings in 1877, which has been conserving buildings ever since. In fact, there is considerable experience amongst developers, building owners, consultants and other stakeholders such as Historic England, that know their way around a historic building.

The challenge is finding the best fit for each building, picking from a suite of potential changes to improve energy performance.

An essential point here is that as well as more detailed advice, there are already helpful tools to assist those teams completing such projects – Oxford’s Heritage Energy Efficiency Tool; the LETI retrofit guide; Westminster’s Environmental SPD; Historic England’s guidance.

The question will be whether heritage protection will continue to trump sustainability and measures to improve energy efficiency in existing buildings. Many of us know and recognise the inherent challenges of navigating change to historic buildings. 

One hopes that drawing on these guides and developing more case studies with reliable data should help reduce the hesitancy of decision makers to accept pioneering approaches and start to create a more sustainable City of Westminster that still preserves the best of the past.