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Honest Conversations

We need to stop building new homes in Sheffield

Staying within our carbon budgets means embracing a transformative programme of retrofit that could breathe new life into our towns and cities, while providing high-quality homes for everyone.

When it comes to addressing its housing crisis, like many cities Sheffield finds itself in a seemingly impossible position.

On the one hand, we urgently need thousands more homes. The city’s population is expected to increase dramatically over the coming decades. But we’ve not even got enough homes for our existing population, with the waiting list for a council home now standing at a shameful 13,662. In December last year, 672 households in the city were living in temporary accommodation, including 422 children. The local office of anti-homelessness charity Shelter estimate that we need 2,200 new homes every year to match the expected rise in population.

But the ‘carbon budgets’ for the city – the amount of carbon we can use while staying within a 1.5C global temperature rise that is necessary for a habitable planet – severely limit how much we can build. Research carried out by Dark Matter Labs and the Laudes Foundation found that we can only build 176,000 brand-new homes a year across the whole of Europe if we are to stay within a 1.5C framework.

That translates to just 129 new homes a year in Sheffield, leaving a shortfall of 2,071.

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Rachel Rae Photography

This reality seemingly leaves us in an impossible position: between a kind of climate denialism on one hand – carrying on with a mass building programme while ignoring the hard limits of our carbon budget – and a version of eco-fascism on the other – sacrificing the needs of the city’s least well-off in an attempt to avert climate catastrophe. We must reject arguments that suggest that this problem is caused by a rising population, rather than the unequal distribution of resources.

Our local politicians are not having an honest conversation with you about this. Instead, they compete along party-political lines on how many brand-new homes they believe they can build in Sheffield. In their most recent manifesto for the local elections, the local Labour Party boast of their plans to build 36,000 new homes – but the fact that this is incompatible with our carbon budget is not mentioned anywhere.

But there is a solution that keeps us within ‘the doughnut’ – the safe zone where we meet all human needs without exceeding our planetary boundaries. We need a massive programme of state-directed retrofit to create thousands of safe, warm and accessible new homes while breathing life back into the city’s most neglected areas.

Unsustainable positions

Some actors within the construction industry want to convince you that new, flashy buildings can be “sustainable” (a word that often means whatever the person saying it wants it to mean). But this is a fantasy.

The UK’s construction industry is currently responsible for a staggering 35 to 40% of the country’s total emissions. We need to think collaboratively and intentionally about how the industry can adapt at the pace and scale required of us in this moment.

“One reason construction consumes so much is because it is based on a wasteful economic model which often involves tearing down existing structures and buildings, disposing of the resulting material in a haphazard fashion, and rebuilding from scratch,” writes Will Hurst in trade mag the Architects’ Journal.

A shiny new-build can have as many flashy eco-features as it likes, from green walls to rainwater recovery. It may even operate on a zero-carbon basis once it’s signed off by the builder. But what this glossy frontage often hides is that the building has already used up an enormous amount of carbon during its construction (and possibly during the demolition of whatever was on the site before). This implies the need for us to value, and collectively invest more deeply into, materials that carry lower carbon footprints.

Research by the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors found that by the time a typical office block opens, 35% of its whole-life carbon will already have been emitted, rising to 51% for new homes. Carl Elefante, the former president of the American Institute of Architects, put it simply: “The greenest building is the one that already exists.”


The disastrous legacy of neoliberalism has left us with hundreds of underused or abandoned buildings in Sheffield. Huge swathes of the Don Valley between the city centre and Meadowhall sit empty. Even Kelham Island, the city’s coolest neighbourhood, is surrounded by shuttered breweries, empty warehouses and decaying factories stretching for kilometres in every direction – just look at the number of unused buildings along Neepsend Lane and up Rutland Road.

Put together, comprehensive ‘retrofit’ of Sheffield’s existing buildings – making them safe, warm, accessible, comfortable and zero-carbon – could not only create thousands of new high-quality, zero-carbon homes every year, but could also reignite neighbourhoods that have faced a spiral of decline since deindustrialisation.

There are already a few nascent projects in the city demonstrating how this could be done.

The transformation of the once-hated Park Hill has been so successful in winning public support for the building that it’s easy to forget that when it was listed in the late 1990s, the council had wanted to demolish it and replace it with a new housing estate from a volume builder – a move that would not only have been an act of cultural vandalism, but would have used up vast amounts more carbon than the refurbishment they eventually (and begrudgingly) opted for.

The same company developing Park Hill flats, Urban Splash, are now about to overhaul the former John Lewis building opposite City Hall. When the future of the now-Grade II listed building was still up in the air, and proposals were being bandied around to flatten it for a new-build development, researchers at the University of Sheffield estimated that it contained 4,300 tonnes of embodied carbon – the equivalent of 4,000 flights from London to New York.

All of this carbon was saved when it was eventually decided to retain the building’s superstructure and convert it into mixed-use commercial space.

But retrofitting old factories, office blocks and warehouses – many of which are in a worse state than Park Hill or John Lewis ever were – into new homes (a complete change of use) will require an even more ambitious and imaginative approach.

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Developer Urban Splash are planning to retrofit the old John Lewis building in the city centre.

Steve F on Wikimedia Commons.

As it stands, 91% of homes in the UK do not have the most basic accessibility features to make them ‘visitable’ for disabled people, never mind liveable. 400,000 wheelchair users live in unsuitable accommodation in this country, and local authority waiting lists for a wheelchair accessible home have hit 20,000.

According to the ONS, one-quarter of disabled people lived in social housing, compared to just 8.2% of non-disabled people. This means that disabled people are disproportionately affected by the decimation of social housing in this country since the so-called ‘Right to Buy’. A government survey found that fewer than half of local councils have included targets for more accessible homes in their housing strategies.

All of this speaks to the need for newly retrofitted homes to meet five foundational standards: they must be accessible, warm, safe, comfortable and zero-carbon. Converting old factories and offices into homes that consistently meet these standards will be challenging, but not impossible – and should not be negotiable. And of course, we need to build the essential infrastructure – schools, GPs, public transport and more – to support these new homes.

Many individuals and organisations within the construction industry understand the need for just transition but are constrained by our neoliberal economic system, which profits more from quick demolition and a tabula rasa than from careful renovation. Worse still, the tax system massively incentivises demolition – builders pay 0% VAT on new-builds while retrofit and refurb projects are liable for the full 20%. This makes it close to impossible for the industry to reorient around retrofit when all the incentives are pulling in the other direction.

Through their RetroFirst campaign, the Architects’ Journal suggest some ways the government could incentivise retrofit over new-build. These include cutting the VAT rate on the refurbishment, repair and maintenance of buildings from 20% to 5% or below, and insisting that all publicly-funded projects explore retrofit first. But we need to go much further than that if we’re truly going to respond to the crisis we’re facing.

Mission economy

Such a wide-reaching transformation of this city’s built environment cannot be left to the free market alone, which has shown itself to be incapable of meeting the housing needs of this country’s population, let alone responding to the climate crisis.

To stay within the UK’s carbon budget and a 1.5C global temperature rise, we need to reduce our emissions by 20% each year between now and 2050. Only together, starting in communities but with government support and buy-in, as well as support from the construction industry, can we bring about a transformation in our built environment at the speed and scale needed to meet this target.

Doing so will require us to reorient our economy around meeting human needs such as housing rather than profit and production for its own sake.

We will need to build a ‘mission economy’ – not dissimilar to that during WWII – where the state takes a lead in identifying and acquiring unused or underused buildings for retrofit, and turns them into new homes. In the process we would create thousands of highly-skilled jobs and breathe new life into neglected areas of our towns and cities – all without intruding on the greenbelt.

Taking this mission into democratic hands and out of the control of the market would also allow us to carry out radical experiments with new materials that could slash the carbon footprint of retrofitted homes.

“Without profoundly transforming how we design, build, use, re-use, and live with the built environment around us, the +1.5ºC threshold is only a few years away,” write Dark Matter Labs alongside Birmingham-based systems change designers CIVIC SQUARE. “To make this transformative shift, we must understand the carbon impact of different materials, alongside their capacity to support intangible capitals of many kinds.”

They point out how materials like concrete, bricks and mortar all have a high carbon impact, and need to last for hundreds (if not thousands) of years to balance their carbon costs. We need to look to alternative materials like rammed earth and hempcrete, which have been known to last for millennia in ancient buildings, but which we have only started experimenting with as contemporary building materials in the last 30 years.

But we don’t have another 30 years in hand. The embodied carbon emissions alone for new-build housing in the UK are around 16.7 metric tons of carbon dioxide a year, meaning that we only have five more years of carbon budget for building brand new homes.

At a national level, the 2011 census revealed that for the first time we have enough bedrooms for each person to have their own, if they want one. But the problem is one of distribution. Since 1981, homes across the UK have become more unevenly distributed, as rising rates of inequality have allowed the very rich to buy up holiday homes and city pads which are left empty for most of the year, while at the same time pricing out local people.

This is less of a factor in Sheffield, where there are very few, if any, holiday homes. But nationwide reform to the housing market to reduce the number of largely unused second homes must be part of the solution alongside a retrofit revolution.

We need to ask our politicians, local and national, why they are not being honest with us about this. We need to ask them how their plans for an endless conveyor of new-build homes commissioned from volume builders can possibly allow us to stay within our carbon budgets.

We need to be demanding that our local leaders put pressure on government to launch an ambitious programme of retrofit, ensuring every single person in this country lives in a safe, affordable, warm and high-quality home without breaching our planetary boundaries.

Previously from Honest Conversations

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