End damaging demolish-and-replace culture by axing VAT on refurbs, say Bath Uni academics

September 29, 2021

Engineering experts at the University of Bath have called on the government to remove VAT from the cost of refurbishing building to help the construction industry meet net-zero sustainability targets.

Such a move would level the playing field between refurbs and new-build construction projects, they argue, by providing developers with an incentive not to demolish existing buildings. 

New-build projects are currently not liable to pay VAT but carbon-saving retrofit measures are.

Responding to a warning from the National Engineering Policy Centre & Royal Academy of Engineering on the environmental cost of taxing refurbs, Dr Will Hawkins, a lecturer in Bath’s Department of Architecture & Civil Engineering, said: “We need a new approach to construction where the creative re-use and adaptation of existing buildings is the default option, or even incentivised.

“A first step would be removing VAT on building refurbishment, which is already zero on new buildings – this would remove the disincentive to reuse perfectly good existing buildings and help us to create a more circular economy with less waste and emissions.”

Dr Hawkins, who is a member of the UK FIRES consortium – a research programme aiming to stimulate industrial growth compatible with a rapid transition to zero emissions – said that producing materials to make new buildings released huge amounts of CO2 and depleted natural resources.

“All too often, perfectly safe structures are demolished to make way for new developments, and this also creates considerable unnecessary waste,” he added.

Prof Tim Ibell, dean of the Faculty of Engineering & Design and also a member of the UK FIRES consortium, said that choices on construction needed to be placed in stark terms to change thinking within the industry.

“Research carried out here at Bath and with UK FIRES shows us that we simply must use less stuff if we are to have any hope at all of meeting our legally-binding requirement to achieve net zero by 2050,” said Prof Ibell, who is also a member of the Institution of Structural Engineers Climate Emergency Task Group,

“Given the enormity of carbon footprint stored up in our built environment, we must re-use and re-mould our existing buildings and assets without recourse to knock them down and build something new. This needs to be part of the culture of the construction industry – now.”

The call follows the Decarbonising construction: building a new net zero industry report, published last week by the National Engineering Policy Centre and the Royal Academy of Engineering.

Written by some of the UK’s top engineers, the report laid out plans to reduce the industry’s impact, in part by calling on companies to stop knocking down buildings given the huge ‘embodied carbon’ cost of construction and of the raw materials used in most projects.

Research within Bath’s Faculty of Engineering & Design covers a range of sustainability-focused approaches, including retrofitting and reuse of homes and buildings, how to safely reduce materials used in construction, the development of new materials and self-healing concrete, and how people will interact with future developments.

The University of Bath is one of the UK’s leading universities both in terms of research and our reputation for excellence in teaching, learning and graduate prospects.


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