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ODAY, PAST the halfway mark in

the first quarter of the 21st century,

we are challenged by a number

of coincidental global agendas: the

exhaustion of the key non-renewable

material and energy resources which

industrialised and developing countries

currently depend on; recognition of the

relationship between the burning of

fossil fuels, carbon dioxide emissions and

global warming (‘climate change’); and

the agenda of sustainable development,

articulated in the 1987



, affirmed at the 1992 Rio de

Janeiro Earth Summit, and reinforced

in the

2015 United Nations Sustainable

Development Goals


Sustainable development has many

interpretations, but two will suffice in the

context of this article.

First, the concept of sustainability

is defined in ecology as the capacity of

systems to endure and remain diverse

and productive over time. It signifies

durability, is dynamic and not static, and

presupposes resilience and adaptability

to change. Elaborating this, sustainable

development is defined in the 1991


Caring for the Earth


development directed at ‘improving the

quality of human life while living within

the carrying capacity of supporting

ecosystems’ (see Further Information

for details of all cited publications). The

2010 European Union

Toledo Declaration

on Urban Development

encapsulates the

multiple dimensions of sustainability

as ‘economic, social, environmental,

cultural and governance’. It stresses the

importance of cultural heritage alongside

building rehabilitation.

Second, whereas the 1987



has been criticised in many

quarters for its emphasis on economic

growth, an oft-overlooked passage on the

first page reads: ‘We see the possibility

for a new era of economic growth, one



[author’s italics] be based on

policies that sustain and expand the

environmental resource base’.

The environmental resource base that

concerns us here has two components,

renewable and non-renewable. The latter

divides into the unexploited, for which

tables of reserves and projected expiration

dates are regularly published, and the

exploited. The environmental resources

already exploited for the development

of our existing buildings and urban

infrastructure include both the materials

themselves and the fuels used in their

extraction, manufacture, transportation

and construction – their ‘embodied energy’.

This investment provides the building

conservation and retrofit sector with a

vital role in today’s global agendas which

extends beyond a reductionist focus on

‘architectural or historic interest’ premised

on selective survival. In a Europe-wide

context the importance of conserving this

embodied resource is underlined by the

estimation that 80 per cent of the buildings

that will exist in the year 2050 have already

been built. This figure varies regionally,

increasing to 87 per cent relative to the

housing stock in Scotland for example.

The Edinburgh Centre for Carbon Innovation, which opened in 2013, is a category A listed former school. Its

refurbishment used low carbon materials including highly engineered timber and reclaimed steelwork. It is the

first refurbished historic building in the UK to achieve a BREEAM ‘Outstanding’ rating. (Photo: Dave Morris)