Should we build less and reuse more? A round-up of the Bristol debate

Should we build less and reuse more? The answer to this question might seem obvious in an age when the concept of ‘sustainability’ is a preface to every discussion about growth and development.

On Wednesday evening in Bristol, we invited three speakers to share their views and brought together an audience with a shared interest in how places work and how they can be the best they can be, now and in the future. Our three speakers represented three distinct voices – a designer, a community activist and a commercial developer – sharing an open, equal platform.

Should we build less?

Interestingly, most people acknowledged that we need to build more! Community speaker Chris Chalkley (chairperson of the Peoples Republic of Stokes Croft) referred to the ever-expanding world population: when Chris was born the total population was estimated at 3 billion; it now stands at 7 billion and is predicted to reach 10 billion by 2050. There is no doubt that we need to build more to accommodate this growth. More locally, the housing shortage in the UK means that more housing needs to be built, and with that, more infrastructure and services.

Importantly though, all three speakers argued that we need to build better. Taking us back to the days before sustainability became the buzzword in development terms, audience member Richard Guise reintroduced the concept of the 3Ls in developing our places and spaces – think long life, low energy and loose fit.

Should we reuse more?

In order to better support reuse most agreed that the 3Ls were crucial. Mayor of Bristol George Ferguson, speaking from the audience, said “we should be building buildings to reuse them”. However, speaker Kieran Lilley, an architect with Bristol-based practice Stride Treglown shared his challenges in negotiating design briefs with client developers, specifically on student housing projects, where there is little room or scant desire to allow for spaces that could be adapted for other uses in the future.

The high cost of retrofitting buildings and spaces is a common argument for demolishing and rebuilding. Speaker Gavin Bridge, a director of Cubex Land, acknowledged that refurbishment is often more expensive but also argued, through the example of his company’s redevelopment of 1 Victoria Street in Bristol, where 98% of the material taken from the building was recycled, that creatively retrofitting a space can lead to cheaper running costs in the long term. Many also felt that our financial model is broken, and the fact that VAT is still applied to refurbishment is but one example of this.

Quite a few times, a recent planning change – the ability to change the use of office premises to residential use was raised as an opportunity to unlock potential in place. Quite apart from the preservation and reuse of listed structures, we discussed the unloved office blocks built in the 1970s and 1980s that can be found across many cities in the UK, which many felt would make ideal homes. Indeed, Gavin Bridge argued that in the context of vacant shops that litter endless high streets across the island, these spaces should be recycled and replaced by schools that would act as a catalyst for regenerating town centres. An interesting idea!

It’s not just about buildings though. The spaces in between buildings, the infrastructure that supports our cities must also be considered. Small changes, such as the action of a community group to apply a new coat of paint to a beloved but neglected streetscape, can reinvigorate and renew places and spaces and have a big impact.

What about collaboration in place, and in reusing and reimagining our places?

Audience member Ann de Graft-Johnson, shared her experience of the dangers of allowing participatory processes to fail. Development, she felt, is still affected by the mistrust of developers towards communities and often, what people value is ignored. The repercussions are immense:

“Everytime you do this, you dismantle community and it takes a lot of energy to put it back again.”

The short cycle of politics and its influence on planning and development decisions is a great obstacle to the continuity of collaborative efforts to improve the quality of our places. This is also compounded by the current shortage of local authority planners, which is frustrating many attempts to bring collaborative projects forward.

Why are we not getting things right when we have so much knowledge about how to create and shape great places that are loved and enlivened by people?

We need to be brave!

We ended with Chris Chalkley, who believed that until we address the issues around equality and liberty in our society, achieving this is impossible.

In his words: “It starts with values”.

Postscript: Sometimes debates can take a while to warm up – in Bristol, hands very quickly went up and discussions broke out in groups amongst the audience. It served as a timely reminder to policymakers, creators,  placeshapers (all of us) that these conversations are so important and we need to continue to provide opportunities for people of different backgrounds, interests and professions to come together, share stories and experiences and listen to one another!

The last debate in Place Potential, our 13/14 Debate Series takes place in London on 12 March. ‘Can housing be a catalyst for great places?’ – venue and speakers to be announced shortly. Free registration opens next week.

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