Writtle University College and ARU have merged. Writtle’s full range of college, degree, postgraduate and short courses will still be delivered on the Writtle campus. See our guide to finding Writtle information on this site.

UK must learn to love old, unattractive buildings

Published: 20 April 2023 at 15:34

Professor Saul Humphrey

Refurbishment is route to Net Zero, says ARU’s sustainable construction expert

Ahead of Earth Day 2023 [22 April], Saul Humphrey, Anglia Ruskin University’s new Professor of Sustainable Construction Management, says that the UK must learn to love old, unattractive buildings if the country is to meet its Net Zero commitments. 

Professor Humphrey, who joined Anglia Ruskin University (ARU) this academic year, has extensive experience across the construction and business sector. Amongst his previous roles is Managing Director of Morgan Sindall (East), and he is currently Chair of the Norfolk branch of the Institute of Directors (IoD).

With consultation still taking place over the Future Homes Standard and Future Buildings Standard regulations, due to be introduced in 2025, Professor Humphrey believes prioritising refurbishment of existing buildings over new construction projects is the most effective way for the sector to help the UK become Net Zero by 2050.

Professor Humphrey, who in addition to his position at ARU has his own Norfolk-based sustainable development consultancy practice, a B Corp called Saul D Humphrey LLP, said:


“The construction industry and the broader built environment sector is a big part of the problem, being responsible for an estimated 38% to 40% of all CO2e emissions. 
“Approximately two thirds of these emissions typically emanate from how we heat and power buildings, but another third comes from the embodied carbon actually in our buildings. It’s said that if cement was a country, it would be the third biggest polluter on the planet and steel would be the fifth.

“For the construction sector to become part of the solution, rather than part of the problem, then a huge shift is required in our attitudes towards existing buildings, which in many cases might be unloved or unattractive. I say this as someone with decades of experience in the construction sector, but it is almost always better not to build at all. 

“There needs to be a much greater focus on avoiding demolition by thinking refurbishment first. We should always be asking ‘do we need to build it?’ There is so much empty retail and office space in towns and cities across the country, and we should be looking at how to repurpose these buildings first. However, without legislation in place, it’s about winning hearts and minds and convincing people that this is the right approach.”


For the materials used in the refurbishment of buildings, as well as any new construction, Professor Humphrey believes that greater adoption of bio-based materials is crucial in a sector that is notoriously slow to adopt new technologies. 

He added:

“We need to focus more on the structure of buildings. Yes, new regulations around heat pumps and solar panels on roofs are absolutely welcomed, but the fabric of the building is also key. The construction sector in this country is very risk averse, and we constantly try to replicate things we’ve done for decades. Look at how the car industry has evolved in the last 30 or 40 years – the pace of change in the construction industry is ridiculously slow.

“It’s vital that we shift to bio-based materials such as hemp and locally grown timber, which sequester carbon as they grow and then lock-in the carbon as part of a structure. Lower carbon concrete is coming, but we should not pretend it is easy or as sustainable – any material that has high energy demands as part of its production process is always going to be a challenge.

“Currently the UK minimum standards are just too low. What is really needed is strong policy that commits that all new construction will be net zero. However, I am optimistic that the Future Homes Standard and Future Buildings Standard regulations, due to be the new benchmark in 2025, will shift the dial on the UK’s minimum building standards, but we need to do more and we need to do it sooner.

“Additional regulations will soon mean that sustainable refurbishment or sustainable construction also makes absolute financial sense. In the future, a green building will be traded at a significant premium, while inefficient buildings risk becoming ‘stranded assets’. And we know that when the bottom line is affected, large-scale change soon follows.”


ARU’s School of Engineering and the Built Environment offers fully accredited BSc degree courses in Construction Management at the Chelmsford campus and at ARU Peterborough. For further details, visit https://www.aru.ac.uk/study/undergraduate/construction-management