Refurb or new build? Fabric first approach should be the main driver

Good contractors understand the need to become multi-disciplined, multi-platform and multi-skilled, bringing significant added value to the early engagement process.

Katherine Morton, Regional Design Lead at Stepnell, explains how to optimise project outcomes when considering taking a new or refurb route for public sector buildings.

As public sector budgets continue to squeeze more than ever, every penny of public spend needs to be carefully considered, especially on projects that require significant capital investment.

At the same time, councils are also looking to be more sustainable, guided by net zero targets and waste reduction goals.

When it comes to improving public sector provision amid constricting budgets and facility depreciation, a conscious cost-benefit analysis can often reveal a difficult decision between the much-desired choice to build new or refurbishing instead.

Whichever path is chosen following consultation, it’s essential to have a clear understanding of what the building is being used for and to what extent it needs to be retained. As with many public sector projects, there are strong limitations within the extent of scope and budget.

Determining the short or long-term outcomes of the project means weighing up the capital expenditures (CapEx) versus operating expenditures (OpEx), in order to understand whether you need to allocate investment towards physical assets.

The replacement and upgrade of heating and ventilation systems provides much improved payback periods in terms of reduced energy bills and ongoing maintenance costs over the life of the products. Understanding the CapEx versus OpEx challenge gives a clearer understanding of the genuine value that can be added to a build.

With refurbishment projects, it is critical to really define that scope and ascertain what the priorities are. Once you’re confident in the extent to which a building can be reused, and the ways in which the building fabric can be updated to make it fit for purpose and compliant, it creates a clear picture of how you can remove waste production during the build.

For instance, if the focus area is to improve meeting space, then using pods or incorporating partitioning booths into an open plan environment are cost-effective ways to create office and meeting room environments, all while utilising existing M&E infrastructure within the floor plate.

Optimising existing internal spaces in this way can free up budget to focus on longer term ‘fabric first’ priorities – such as improving air permeability through wall and window insulation upgrade. Understanding these drivers early allows us to focus project expenditures, while still being capable of transforming an office dynamic into a refreshed and more collaborative atmosphere.

A changing picture

While the uptake of building information modelling (BIM) has stalled as public sector budgets become increasingly restrictive, its use is highly beneficial in terms of properly data scanning areas such as floor areas and interface details to differentiate between old and new possibilities.

To optimise BIM implementation into the build process, budget and data intelligence from the client side needs to become more joined up with how the end user needs to use the space. Effective integration of BIM by the client and with the contractor can really make the project budget work hard.

The best contractors have understood the need to become multi-disciplined, multi-platform and multi-skilled, bringing significant added value to the early engagement process and ultimately becoming more of a trusted advisor, rather than a transactional approach for bottom line profit.

By doing this, they can advise on suggestions and offer solutions but, ultimately, they enable the client to make the decision for themselves, through the clear provision of data to facilitate informed decision making.

Taking this approach also helps define the wider ‘value creation’ we all need to achieve from projects, accounting for the economic, social and wellbeing aspects of a build. It helps inform the debate between refurbishment and new build, meaning the contractor has a bigger role to play through early engagement and respective cost options.

The environmental challenge

Public sector organisations have a responsibility to set an example for sustainable decision making. When it comes to local buildings and infrastructure, this must include providing higher fabric efficiency and lower energy costs for communities in order to reduce long term spending and embodied carbon.

A key factor on whether to build new or refurbish is to consider the ways to achieve sustainability and cost saving aims. This can be measured via calculating the environmental savings of embodied carbon through a low carbon refurbishment, which will often far outweigh the upfront cost of a completely new build.

However, if demolition and a new build is chosen, repurposing existing materials can be economically and environmentally cost-effective, mitigating the embodied costs. Reusing roof tiles or steel - the latter of which now has far greater scope - along with recycling building materials into crushed aggregate are just some of the methods that generate value.

Building on waste reduction as a priority, a collective input from different organisations is key. This also rings true in an operational sense. Projects must be scrutinised and value truly weighed up against the overall desired outcome and cost. For instance, purely cosmetic works would not usually justify a whole rebuild or large refurbishment in the current circumstances. This is reflected in the types of funding available to public sector organisations and the skew towards more funding for energy efficient heating and lighting as substantial areas for investment.

Low carbon heating, energy and sustainability are typically the primary drivers in public sector improvement works. Securing available funding is therefore a great way to facilitate the budget for such projects, particularly in sectors with enormous pressures such as healthcare.

As a contractor, it’s our responsibility to help weigh up the right energy approach to match the build. Supportive services for clients, including Stepnell’s ‘Step Energy’ and ‘Step to Zero’ offerings, have been developed as a response to client requests for well-considered and integrated solutions to current and future challenges in line with the journey to carbon neutrality.

Smart decisions

Every project will be different and an analysis of the whole life cost, end-user experience and embodied carbon savings will determine the smartest decision when it comes to a new build or refurb approach. Data is key and using it to forecast what is the best choice will always remain very important. For example, £4m on an average refurbishment might about get you to the point where the shell and layout is fit and efficient for the next 20 years. But after this what is the value you are creating in terms of the overall working environment?

Overall, the best way forward is to carefully consider refurbishment works across the board by taking a granular approach to align the brief and outcome needs. Instead of continuing to put sticking plasters on public sector projects to get budgets through the door, we need to think more widely about how we can take a fabric first approach to create a space that’s going to serve well for more than 20 years.

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