"We must stop demolishing in order to redesign"

Restoration and reuse are, without a doubt, the best ways to reduce the climate impact of the construction industry. As architects, we need to stop demolishing in order to design something new, says Karl Johan Kember, certified expert in cultural values, representative of the Swedish Architects' Cultural Environment Council and architect at FOJAB.

Preserving what exists is suddenly in vogue for sustainability reasons - how do you see this development?

- For me as a building conservationist, the existing is primarily about the cultural environment and its significance. Cultural values tell the story of our society, give us identity, roots, knowledge, beauty and well-being, and are therefore very strong in their own right.

- However, the increased interest in sustainability has helped us to push cultural heritage issues forward as more and more people realize that a sustainable construction industry cannot be created by innovative new construction alone, but just as much by taking care of, renovating and developing the existing stock. In this way, sustainability and building conservation cross-fertilize each other very well.

How has the perception of building conservation changed?

- From being mostly concerned with the preservation of monuments, it now also includes everyday architecture, industrial heritage and our modern buildings. We know that building conservation methods of site analysis - understanding, valuing and anchoring in time and space - work for all kinds of built environments, regardless of style, age or scale.

- It also feels like there is a growing interest in stylistic architecture and local building traditions. There are more and more examples of new architecture that really dare to enter into dialog with the old without compromising the modern. In planning, we are rediscovering the dense, mixed-function 15-minute city, and the interest in using small-scale, traceable and locally produced products is only increasing.

- But perhaps the biggest change is that building conservation today focuses more on development and transformation than on preservation. Restoration is really about solving problems that have arisen. I think that taking care of our existing environments so that they are usable long into the future is the main task of building care, and it is incredibly exciting!

What is the relationship with building conservation in the construction industry?

- In the industry, there is a lot of focus now on energy consumption, reuse and innovation in new production, but unfortunately less on reusing and activating entire existing buildings and environments. Here, public clients can take the lead - and I feel that many are doing so. Akademiska hus is very interested, and the National Property Board is an exemplary client. But even among private clients, there is increasing openness to building conservation as more and more people realize the value of long-term management.

Is there anything that should be demolished today?

- It will never be possible to avoid demolition altogether. There may be built-in environmental and health hazards that need to be cleaned up, and in some cases the buildings may be in such poor condition or have such technical conditions that reconstruction is simply not possible. If demolition is necessary for any reason, it should be as circular as possible.

- But the main point is that we must drastically reduce demolition. We architects must dare to question demolitions and new buildings with a limited lifespan, and instead show rebuilding options that are based on the possibilities of the existing buildings. We must also become better at explaining how cultural values contribute to increased social, economic and environmental sustainability.

What are the challenges of such an approach?

- Over the past decades, legislation in construction has grown. While all regulations have a good purpose, it is important to recognize that each addition costs time, money and even environmental resources. Moreover, many of the requirements can be difficult to implement in retrofit projects without major and disruptive interventions. More discussion is needed on how laws, industry regulations, certifications and production methods can be better adapted to the cultural environment, renovation and reuse.

- In parallel with the increased demands, the role of the architect has changed, from a large role in a relatively small and linear process, to a small role in a large and increasingly industrialized process. I hope that we can get back to more of the old role, and that architecture can be more about beauty, materials, patina, craftsmanship and detailing. I also wish more clients would understand the importance of the long early stages of the building process. Nowadays they go so fast, competitions should be completed in no time at all, but that's when the analysis and evaluation is done!

- Another challenge is to develop better methods for comparing refurbishment with demolition and new construction, such as developed life cycle assessments at an early stage and mandatory climate declarations for all types of construction, including possible demolition.

What can architects do to drive development?

- It is up to us to take the initiative, and I would like to see more architects talking about the link between cultural environment and sustainability. It is perhaps particularly interesting right now, when we are faced with the great challenge of taking care of the Million Homes Program. We know a lot about older buildings, but now we must learn to see and understand the values of the 60s and 70s environments as well. These buildings are often beautifully situated in the terrain, have fine floor plans and good lighting conditions. These are definitely values that we need to protect - not just because it would be a huge waste of resources to demolish them!