SB Brand-Led Culture Change 2024 - Last chance to save, final discount ends April 28th!

Walking the Talk
Renovate or Rebuild:
M&S Oxford St Planning Decision Fuels Debate About ‘Sustainable’ Construction

The retailer argued that a new store would be 25% more energy efficient; but environmentalists say the Oxford Street demolish-rebuild plan would have sent 40K tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere.

Marks & Spencer is a firmly established part of high street history in the UK. It has been selling clothes, homeware and food since 1884 and remains a hugely popular brand. So, the recent news that the retailer had been refused permission to demolish and rebuild its flagship London branch on Oxford Street — the capital’s main shopping thoroughfare — has caused quite a stir.

The company had wanted to bulldoze the Art Deco building at 458 Oxford Street and replace it with a shiny, new shop and large office block — a decision which had been agreed to by planning officers both within the local authority and the Mayor’s office. But in a fairly uncommon move, the government stepped in to block the demolition — with Communities Secretary Michael Gove saying it would “fail to support the transition to a low-carbon future, and would overall fail to encourage the reuse of existing resources — including the conversion of existing buildings.”

The retailer is understandably upset by the decision — which CEO Stuart Machin said left the business with “no choice but to review its future position” on Oxford Street, where it already has two other properties. Writing in the Daily Telegraph, he said Gove’s “short-sighted” decision sent a “chilling message to the towns and cities across the UK in desperate need of regeneration.”

M&S’s position was that retrofitting the building to make it fit-for-purpose was “not an option — despite reviewing sixteen different options.” Gove rebutted, saying he wasn’t convinced the company and its architects had explored the alternatives well enough. The decision to refuse the demolition amounted to the fact that the public benefits of constructing a new building did not “outweigh the harm to the significance of a number of designated heritage assets.” He was no doubt pointing to the potential impact on other important retail buildings nearby — not least the historic Selfridges department store, which opened its doors in 1909.

Designing for Circularity-Friendly Behaviors

Join us as leaders from BBMG and REI examine how leading brands are innovating and scaling circular models to attract new fans and earn customer loyalty, all while eliminating waste — Thurs, May 9, at Brand-Led Culture Change.

On the other hand, the decision has delighted heritage campaigners. Henrietta Billings from SAVE Britain’s Heritage — a vocal campaigner against the plan — said the decision “rightly challenges the way we continually and needlessly knock down and rebuild important buildings across our towns and cities. Repurposing and converting buildings we cherish and saving thousands of tonnes of CO2 in the process is a no brainer.”

It is a story that has elevated the ongoing debate in sustainable construction: to refurbish and renovate, or rebuild. Environmentalists say the Oxford Street demolish-rebuild plan would have sent 40,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. The business argued that a new, energy-efficient development would require 25 percent less energy to run — benefits that would last a century and an argument that won Westminster City Council over in the first place.

“Construction requires colossal amounts of energy and causes vast emissions, facts that have led to the belated realisation that it is better wherever possible to renovate rather than rebuild,” according to architecture critic Rowan Moore. “The most sustainable building is the one that is already there, as the now-fashionable saying goes.”

Of course, commercial decisions often override ones that truly benefit the planet. IKEA’s decision to take over a prominent site held by UK supermarket chain Sainsbury’s in Greenwich, in East London, is a good case in point: Here, Sainsbury’s opened what was a pioneering example of sustainable retail construction, complete with onsite wind turbines and an ‘Excellent’ BREEAM sustainability rating. The building even made it onto the Stirling Prize shortlist — the first supermarket to do so. But just 17 years later, it was demolished to make way for what the Swedish furniture chain claimed would be its most sustainable store.

As construction and architecture journalist Tom Ravenscroft wrote about the rebuilding: “As a rule of thumb, the energy needed to construct and demolish a building is around 30 percent of what’s needed to run it over a 50-year lifespan. By demolishing the building much earlier than this, any environmental savings banked while running the building were wiped out.”

The answer to the question, ‘Why wasn’t the Sainsbury’s store simply taken over by another similar retailer, or converted to be used in another way?’, is buried in planning documents, lost to history. But there are plenty of emerging cases that show there are real, viable alternatives to demolishing out-of-date retail. In Sheffield, in the North of England, the “sensitive reuse” of a former John Lewis department store is seen as being critical for the redevelopment of the city centre.

Meanwhile, the future of another prominent London building — the 36-floor Euston Tower — has also been the subject of debate. It needs replacing, say its owners. Its rooms have low ceilings (too low by modern office standards) and it needs more elevators to comply with current regulations. Rather than pull down and replace the whole thing, the developers are considering the Tower’s embodied carbon; concluding that 25 percent of the existing structure can stay — including the basement, foundations and central core.

Other than listing buildings to be preserved at all costs, there is an absence of legislation to drive renovation over replacement. In the UK, as in many other countries, regulations focus on energy-efficiency performance once buildings have been developed and tend to ignore the carbon emissions associated with construction and demolition. Until that changes, the arguments will continue to rage.