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Why ‘whole life carbon’ is changing the commercial property sector

In March last year we analysed the importance of embodied carbon in the commercial building sector. Our research found that buildings and the built environment are responsible for an astonishing 39% of all global energy related carbon emissions and 43% of all greenhouse gas emissions.

In the UK alone, a typical new build house produces around 45 tonnes CO2e (carbon dioxide equivalent) during construction. This is enough carbon to power a light bulb continuously for 450 years. Worryingly, carbon emissions from commercial construction are much, much higher due to the types of materials used.

Almost one third (28%) of carbon emissions from the commercial built environment are generated during construction – including manufacture of the materials used – while the remainder originates from:

  1. Carbon created during the day-to-day use of the building (the in-use stage)
  2. Carbon created during deconstruction and demolition (the end-of-life stage)

What might surprise you is that, up until very recently, there was no official mandate for measuring the carbon emissions of a building until the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS) published its first Whole Life Carbon Assessment standard in 2017.

The RICS carbon measurement framework

The new RICS measurement framework outlines how carbon emissions should be measured at every stage of a building’s lifespan from construction and use to end-of-life decommissioning.

Leaders in the commercial construction sector are now paying particular attention to the reuse and recycling of materials both during construction and at end of life due to the significant reductions that can be made to carbon footprint.

The Whole Life Carbon Assessment

In November 2023 RICS published an updated Whole Life Carbon Assessment for the Built Environment which aims to provide a complete methodology for measuring carbon emissions across the lifespan of a building.

RICS says that the standard will provide all 130,000 RICS members worldwide with “a consistent approach to calculating whole-life carbon emissions within the built environment”.

Ultimately, the aim is to accurately measure and subsequently reduce carbon emissions in the built environment and achieve Net Zero emissions by 2050 globally.

One significant outcome of the new framework is its focus on reuse and recycling, with the latest RICS guidance outlining several frameworks for the reuse or refurbishment of building materials several times over.

Saving our planet one refurb at a time

According to a 2022 report by the Institute for Environmental Design and Engineering at University College London, one of the most impactful strategies in reducing a building’s carbon footprint is to reuse or recycle construction materials. The report concluded that refurbishments perform better than replacements in terms of life cycle performance, and that refurbishment is preferable on a short-term (around 20 years) and long-term (up to 80 years) basis.

Another recent study by infrastructure consulting firm AECOM found that refurbishment can reduce carbon footprint by around 33%.

The case for choosing refurbished facades over new

Source: AECOM

Across London, dozens of recent examples of commercial building refurbishment can be witnessed by walking the streets of Shoreditch, Hatton Gardens and Mayfair to name but a few. The Tea Building and the Johnson Building in London are two inspiring examples of taking old buildings into the modern era using refurbishment strategies.

The Tea Building stands out on the skylines of Shoreditch for its combination of old warehouse vibes and contemporary modern interior. This seven-storey ex-warehouse previously served London as the HQ for Lipton Tea back in the 1930s. Today, the building is home to a wide range of tech start-ups and computer game development firms, even boasting a set of sustainability credentials that could make the most modern commercial building owner envious.

The Johnson Building is another 1930s marvel to behold. Today the building has been fully refurbished into a modern office space that was recently crowned with a RIBA Award for Architecture.

Restorative cleaning offers an alternative to replacement

Not all buildings will be suitable for a low carbon retrofit, but by reducing the need to replace any part of your commercial building you can realise significant cost savings and reduced carbon footprint.

Restorative cleaning is the process we use to restore building facades, stone, glass and other building materials. Our analysis shows that, on average, restorative cleaning is around 1/20 of the cost of replacement and one third of the cost of respraying.

The reduction in carbon footprint may be sizeable too considering that a typical commercial building creates carbon output of between 1,000 to 1,500 kg of CO2e per m2 in its lifetime.

Nick Down, Director at See Brilliance, explains:

“Restorative cleaning provides commercial building owners and occupiers with a more affordable alternative to replacement. As the largest restorative cleaning contractor in the UK, our services include independently approved specialist products and techniques which enable us to restore a building’s exterior back to almost ‘as new’ visual condition without damaging the surface. We can restore most types of stone, brickwork, glass, building facades and cladding using gentle restorative cleaning processes to give an exceptional finish for a fraction of the cost of replacement.”


“In addition to providing near-instant aesthetic improvements, restorative cleaning can reduce the damage caused by dirt and contaminants such as mould spores. Our restoration techniques are also eco-friendly and non-hazardous. As a result, we have worked alongside and supported professional and public bodies including the Royal Institute of British Architects and Historic England.”

Supporting the commercial sector for three decades

See Brilliance has over 30 years’ experience in providing cost-effective restoration alternatives to respraying, rebuilding and replacement.

Utilising advanced systems and certified skill, our experts can restoratively clean metal, glass and stone facade surfaces to their factory finish and standard, enhancing company and property image by leaving a protected finish that is practical, aesthetically pleasing and to an almost ‘as new’ condition and appearance.

To find out more about our restoration methods, including DOFF Steam Cleaning, TORC Cleaning, commercial façade and cladding restoration and restorative cleaning, get in touch today.

Download the See Brilliance 2024 brochure