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Council consultation points to John Lewis demolition, despite environmental cost

Public opinion on the former department store contrasts with a growing consensus in the architectural community against demolition.

John lewis
John F on Wikimedia Commons.

The results of a consultation into the future of Sheffield city centre suggest public support for demolishing the former John Lewis building – even though doing so would be environmentally damaging.

According to Sheffield Council, the responses "demonstrated a clear preference for replacing the current building with a smaller building and outdoor space."

But there is now a consensus among architects that the 'demolish and rebuild' approach is damaging to the environment, leading to the Architect's Journal launching the RetroFirst campaign.

This shift in emphasis towards refurbishment and reuse is captured by a quote from former American Institute of Architects president Carl Elefante, who said that "the greenest building is the one that already exists".

A spokesperson for the Council told Now Then that despite the consultation they would explore all options and proposals put forward to redevelop, replace or reuse the building.

Of 1,299 people who answered a question about the building, 516 said their preference would be for it to be demolished and replaced by a smaller building and a new public space.

452 people said the existing building should be reused, and 332 said it should be demolished and replaced entirely with a new public space.

But the enormous consultation document also shows that "a number of respondents were explicitly opposed to the John Lewis building being demolished on environmental grounds." Others objected because of the cultural significance of the 1963 store.

John Lewis closed their Sheffield department store for good in March 2021, saying that the impact of the pandemic on the viability of the branch was "too great."

But due to a deal struck with the retailer in 2020, Sheffield Council now fully own the building and the land it sits on, and are solely responsible for deciding its future.

Proposals put forward for the reuse of the building include a new home for the Central Library and Graves Art Gallery, or turning it into Sheffield's answer to Covent Garden in London's West End or the Pompidou Centre in Paris.

The Council’s Executive Member for Regeneration Mazher Iqbal said that they were seeking proposals for the site that would “provide something special for Sheffield”.

“We have already had a lot of interest in the site, and we are confident that we will receive some great proposals.”

Some have pointed to the cost of removing asbestos in the current building, but the Council have said exactly the same work will be required regardless of whether the building is demolished or reused.

Sheffield City Council have committed to the whole city reaching net-zero carbon by 2030.

Demolishing and replacing the former department store would add to the city's carbon footprint significantly, and although a new public space would have other benefits it would make little difference to Sheffield's climate targets.

Writing in The Star, Robin Hughes of Joined Up Heritage Sheffield says that replacing the building with trees would only absorb 9.2 tonnes of CO2 from the environment per year, less than one person's average carbon footprint.

In December last year, the Sheffield Tribune reported that the existing building contains 4,300 tonnes of embodied carbon, all of which would be lost if it was demolished.

A 2016 report by the US National Trust for Historic Preservation concluded that "reusing an existing building and upgrading it to be as efficient as possible is almost always the best choice regardless of building type and climate."

The website for the original consultation says that retaining the John Lewis building "costs the most carbon of the three recommended options", but this is widely believed not to be true.

The report into the public response even indicates that this document "did not account for the fact that carbon omissions would be required to construct a new building".

Joined Up Heritage Sheffield have said this omission, which was not challenged by the Council, "made the retention of the existing building appear relatively worse in terms of the carbon assessments of each option."

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