The Government must remove VAT from the cost of home and building refurbishments if it is to help the construction industry meet net-zero sustainability targets, experts at the University of Bath have said.

Ending VAT on refurbishments and carbon-saving retrofit measures would level the playing field between refurbs and new-build construction projects, they say. Currently new-build projects are not liable to pay the tax, which can provide developers an incentive to demolish existing buildings.

Dr Will Hawkins, lecturer in Bath’s Department of Architecture & Civil Engineering and a member of the UK FIRES consortium, says: “We need a new approach to construction, where the creative re-use and adaptation of existing buildings is the default option, or even incentivised. A first step would be removing VAT on building refurbishment, which is already zero on new buildings – this would remove the disincentive to reuse perfectly good existing buildings and help us to create a more circular economy with less waste and emissions.

“Producing materials to make new buildings releases huge amounts of CO2 and depletes natural resources. All too often, perfectly safe structures are demolished to make way for new developments, and this also creates considerable unnecessary waste.”

Professor Tim Ibell, Dean of the Faculty of Engineering & Design at Bath, and a member of the UK FIRES consortium and the Institution of Structural Engineers Climate Emergency Task Group, says that choices on construction need to be placed in stark terms to change thinking within the industry.

“Research carried out here at Bath and with UK FIRES shows us that we simply must use less stuff if we are to have any hope at all of meeting our legally-binding requirement to achieve net zero by 2050,” he says.

“Given the enormity of carbon footprint stored up in our built environment, we must re-use and re-mould our existing buildings and assets without recourse to knock them down and build something new. This needs to be part of the culture of the construction industry - now.”

The call comes in response to the Decarbonising construction: building a new net zero industry report, published last week by the National Engineering Policy Centre and the Royal Academy of Engineering.

Written by some of the UK’s top engineers, the report laid out plans to reduce the industry’s impact, in part by calling on companies to stop knocking down buildings given the huge ‘embodied carbon’ cost of construction and of the raw materials used in most projects.

Research within Bath’s Faculty of Engineering & Design covers a range of sustainability-focused approaches, including retrofitting and reuse of homes and buildings, how to safely reduce materials used in construction, the development of self-healing concrete, and how people will interact with future developments.

UK FIRES is a research programme aiming to reveal and stimulate industrial growth in the UK compatible with a rapid transition to zero emissions.