Architect Kirsty Maguire explains why reusing an existing building is always preferable to demolishing and rebuilding. However, when buildings are in terrible condition or need radical alterations to make them habitable we should be looking to reuse, recycle and reclaim as many materials as possible. Kirsty shows us that with intentional and sustainable design, you can create a new structure with a wealth of history.
Interview with Kirsty Maguire
Kirsty Maguire is an architect and Passivhaus designer who specialises in reclamation practices and sustainable building. Along with her team, Kirsty has been involved a wide range of projects that focus on finding ways to recycle the wealth of resources in existing buildings and reclamation centres, instead of buying new. In this chat, Kirsty explains the steps that are taken throughout a reclamation centred project and describes how preloved items can bring beauty and creativity to your home.
Reusing and reclaiming materials is an essential part of sustainability and the future of construction
A lot of the narratives around Passivhaus certification and sustainable construction have a focus on new builds. Whilst these projects are great, we can’t solely focus on sustainable new builds for the future of housing. Kirsty highlights that we currently have a wealth resources in already existing structures. We don’t have the ability to start from scratch on everything, so reclaiming, renovating, and reusing will be fundamental for a strong circular economy and in creating a sustainable future of housing.
“We've done everything from little cottage upgrades to working with the UNDP in Armenia doing big, tower block retrofits. And that's really, you know, that's what's going to change the world in a short time.”
What is the circular economy?
“Circular economy is looking at materials not only in the use that they are now but also beyond that use and into their next life.”
The Seed is a new building constructed just outside of Dundee on a woodland plot. It is a home for two families and acts as a small-scale cohousing project, with shared access to living areas. When the project was originally brought to Kirsty and her team, it was intended to be an EnerPHit project on an existing structure, but after reviewing the building health, the team realised that the structure was in a very poor condition with a lot of damp.
“We drew the things that we're going to have to be taken out in red and the drawings were almost entirely red! There was very little left.”
As a result, the goal shifted from reuse to recycle and the team formulated a plan to demolish the existing structure and reuse as much of the material as possible in the new building. Bricks were used in a range of different ways, creating gabions that formed the foundation of the structure, as aggregate on the site and also in the garden to provide structure for the biodiversity growing that the client is developing.
The client was passionate about sustainability and biodiversity being at the heart of the project, which can be seen in the construction methods, choices of materials and the overall design of the house.
Reusing materials might mean changing their use
Not all reclaimed materials will be able to be used in the exact same way as they were before, so there is an aspect of creativity needed for designers to work out how to use them in new projects.
You don’t need to demolish an existing structure to be able to reclaim materials
There are some great resources out there for sourcing reclaimed materials, whether that be from architectural salvage yards, stone yards, and even online sites such as eBay, Gumtree and Freecycle. A great example, local to Kirsty, is Dundee Scrap Antics, which is a creative recycling and social justice enterprise, that aims to give preloved items another life.
“They might have something that's been sitting in the back there for years and years or even decades, which is exactly what you need for your project. So there are a lot of places you can go.”
Finishes are the easiest way to reuse in a Passivhaus
Structural components can be a bit harder because there won’t be any manufactures data to prove the efficiency of the product, in particular insulation. But this matters most in Passivhaus structures as you need this data to get the certification. Therefore, using reclaimed materials for your internal finishes can be a great way to improve the sustainability and character of your home.
Our current building industry doesn’t consider the richness of reclaiming materials
The current system is designed to make you go straight to the merchant and buy any materials new, it is considered efficient in both time and cost. But it doesn’t take into consideration the benefits of using reclaimed materials on the environment and the unique quality of the finished product.
“It doesn't take into account the rich wealth of recycled materials that exists out there.”
Demolition companies are incentivised to separate waste and avoid putting everything into landfill
With the presence of substances like asbestos, demolition has moved past the time of a wrecking ball and a skip. Now, it is a much more measured process, but there are still important considerations to be made and does depend on where the reclaimed material is used afterwards. Often, demolition companies have the materials taken away to be used in other projects, but Kirsty highlights that whilst this is much better than them ending up in landfill, the most sustainable use is in reclaiming materials and reusing them on the same site. In the case of The Seed, the asbestos was professionally removed, and the majority of the timber and plaster was taken to be used on other sites, but pretty much all the rest was reused on site, whether that was in the building itself, landscaping or in garden structures.
Surroundings can be a big influence on the design
In the design of The Seed, the woodland area in which the site is situated, influenced a large amount of the design as well as the environmental performance. Internal layout can be designed to maximise the connection to the outdoor space and the use of two different colour clay plasters inside differentiates between the two families’ zones in a cohousing living space. As a result, you create a warm atmosphere both thermally and emotionally, that sits within the land not on it.
“As the client described it, almost womb like. Very enveloping and warm and cosy. Not only from a thermal performance point of view, but from a sort of emotional point of view.”
You must not only consider how the building will be constructed, but also it’s deconstruction in many years to come
The construction of The Seed focused on installing root protection and avoiding the use of concrete and cement when laying the groundwork. They decided to use steel screw piles for the foundation as they could position them in relation to the tree roots and can be removed with little impact at a later date. Kirsty also pointed out that even if the steel piles can’t be reused in a future project, they can be recycled.
“This comes back down to the thinking about the whole building life. So you in the same way that we were looking at the previous building that was on the site, that was at it’s end of life, and identifying the type of materials that we can reuse within that, despite the fact that when it was built that wasn’t what was being considered. What we're looking at with a new building is how that building could be taken apart at the end of its life… steel screw piles can be taken out with relatively small impact on the ground, and considering other materials as we go through as to what can be reused and recycled when it does come to that point”
… and it’s embodied carbon impact
Kirsty was yet to receive the data for the embodied carbon of steel screw piles, but did highlight that it is often the renewable energy devices that hold the highest embodied carbon of a project. You can influence this, depending on where you source you Solar PV, for example, can have a big impact on the level of embodied carbon. It is therefore much easier to control the embodied carbon of your above ground materials and it is often about looking at how to balance it all.
Remember to consider your waste management
Kirsty explains that in the construction of The Seed, they highlighted that root protection was an area of potential waste as it requires a large quantity of gravel. To get around this, they were able to use reclaimed materials from the demolition and any left-over material was used in another of their building sites.
Root protection has many benefits
Root protection is often a planning requirement for sites that have trees surrounding the foundation. The Seed was being constructed on a woodland site with many mature trees and root protection was required. The team found that not only did this process protect the trees, but it also protected the soil during construction and helped to avoid the perils of a muddy, winter, construction site!
“the contractor commented that they really loved having the reputation down because it meant that the site was very clean… you're not wading around in the wintertime, with mud up to your ankles, tracking it through the whole building site.”
Aim to continue the ethos through every stage of your build
It’s not only the shell that must be considered when creating a sustainable home. When you carry a mindset through every step of the process, right down to the internal finishes and furnishings, you achieve a cohesive design with much more intention. Kirsty talks about how Caroline (the client for The Seed) achieved the majority of her internal finishes with furniture she already owned, or second hand finds, rather than buying new and contributing to landfill waste. Each feature tells a story, in particular, the wooden platform made from materials reclaimed from the sailing club in Broughty Ferry that her site manager was involved in constructing all those years ago. This continuation of her overall ethos has created not only a beautiful design but a sense of history within a new structure.
“It's really interesting. So unexpectedly, these little stories start to come up and get created about the building too”
Remember to consider the biodiversity and ecology of your site
Kirsty also highlights that biodiversity and ecology are at the centre of their practice when renovating, demolishing, and reconstructing buildings. The presence of bats is a common occurrence in reclamation projects as these structures have been standing for a long time and it’s not only the previous owners that will have called them home. It is therefore important that the proper surveys are done, and any findings must be checked by a local ecologist.
“What's existing there already? It's not just the humans… who call the houses their home.”
Collaboration and a good team is key
Having a team that all share the same goal for a project is vital and if overlooked you may end up with a different end product than what you had envisioned. Storage in key when reclaiming materials as they will often be sat around for a while before they can be reused and in that time, they need to be stored within the right conditions. This requires an additional level of planning and coordination, so a good team that all understand the ethos of the build is crucial. Without this, things may become very difficult.
“It might be that the architect and the client find some amazing things together in terms of materials to reuse. But if you've working with the wrong contractor, then they're not going to be picking that up or vice versa… But when you get a great contractor to work with, or anybody else from the design team or the or the build team, then everyone putting their heads together to find solutions really can make the reused materials sing.”
Don’t be overwhelmed by the prospect of reusing and recycling in your build
Once you get into the process it can be really fun and exciting! Reclaiming and sourcing second hand materials can be a creative exercise in problem solving. You will likely end up with a range of unique and high-quality features in your home that will each tell their own story.
The industry has come a long way in the past 10 years
10 years ago, it would have been very difficult to find data on embodied carbon and embodied energy but today there is rich data base to help guide you. PHHP is a relatively quick modelling tool which also has a feature to check the embodied carbon and embodied energy of materials, allowing you to begin the process at a relatively low cost.
“if you're using PHPP… then you can choose whether you think that extra 50 millimetres of insulation is worth the cost or not and… that puts the control for specification and budget firmly in the design team and clients pocket, which is fantastic.”
Copyright – Grant Anderson / www.grantanderson.me / @grantandersondotme
Your project shouldn’t feel like a juggling act of different goals
Building projects should aim to have your goals working together cohesively rather than battling one another. This brings us back to our topic from last week; embodied carbon vs energy efficiency. Kirsty explains that we shouldn’t view them as competing goals, but instead as different factors that need to work together. You don’t need to forgo one to have the other, but you may need to spend a little longer working out how you can get them to work together harmoniously.
“thinking about the impact of the construction, in the same way that we've been able to look at the performance is a really powerful tool… For a long time, we were focusing on performance, and the decisions that you might make instinctively are often right, but they're not always. And it's exactly the same with embodied carbon and embodied energy.”
Andrew Jones explains how to reclaim VAT on a self build home or conversion as well as sharing some common pitfalls to avoid.
Interview with Andrew Jones
Andrew Jones has worked in construction since leaving school. Initially he was building and selling bungalows. However, as the housing market cooled he saw an opportunity to change direction slightly and started working for a local builders merchant. Their clientele were mainly self-builders and some years later one of the customers asked Andrew for a favour… seeing him as a diligent and organised individual he wondered if he could help him file a VAT reclaim. When word got out other people started knocking on his door and soon he realised this had potential to be a business. Now Andrew Jones (The VAT man) has been running for over a decade and he has built up a team around him.
Value Added Tax (VAT) is built into many purchases
When the UK joined the EU in 1972 part of the qualifying criteria was to have a Value Added Tax (VAT) system in place. VAT is a tax on goods and services whereby money is passed onto the government. Sometimes you may not even realise you're paying it!
Andrew says a lot of everyday goods are subject to VAT. He shares an example of shopping in a supermarket.
If you spend £100 in Tesco, probably 50% of it was subject to VAT, which currently in the UK is 20%. So out of that £50 HMRC would be passed £10 of VAT.
In some instances, such as gas or electricity, there may be a reduced rate of VAT.
There is an incentive to create a new dwelling
When it comes to housing in the UK, supply does not meet demand and so the government is keen to encourage more new homes to be built. One way they do this is with the DIY housebuilder scheme.
You are eligible for a VAT refund if you are undertaking one of two projects.
The scheme applies to new builds and conversions
If you create a new dwelling, and it's for you or a direct family member, then you should qualify for this scheme (and reclaim the VAT).
A reclaim system makes it easier for retailers
If you bought a new home directly from a developer you would not pay VAT. However, it gets more complicated if you plan to build your own home.
For example, as builders merchants charge their customers VAT you couldn't just wander in and say you were exempt! It would be a logistical nightmare for them and open to abuse. Instead, as a self-builder, you reclaim your VAT from HMRC at the end of the process.
You must make sure you're using the right scheme
The scheme is split into two parts and it's important to claim under the right one!
While it may seem like a clear distinction and that nobody could ever go wrong there are some tricky situations.
Refer to the wording of your planning if you're unsure
Andrew shares an example of someone who is tackling a barn conversion but is also extending. There could be quite a large new build element of this project though.
I quite often hear it said: “Oh yeah, I'm doing a new build barn conversion.” But there's no such thing. It has to be a new build or a conversion. So the way that is decided the majority of the time is by the wording of your planning.
The contractor on a new build should not be charging VAT
If you're using a main contractor on a new build project then materials and labour should be charged without VAT. Andrew gives an example.
Off the top of my head, the ground worker, your SIPs company… the roofing contractor, the bricklayer who's putting the outside skin up, the window company, then we get inside the carpenter, the plasterer, the electrician, the plumber, the granite worktop company, then we get the painter and decorator, then we get outside, the landscaper, the driveway, the tarmacadam company, all these people, none of them should be charging you any VAT!
So it's a project price.
If the contractor isn't VAT registered you should buy the materials
Don't be put off if your contractor is not VAT registered. However in this instance you should be purchasing all the materials.
If the contractor did buy the materials there would be no way of passing on the VAT saving to you.
Paying contractors VAT in the first instance is a disaster. Irrespective of Peter the plumber telling you, “I'll give you a VAT receipt and you claim it back.” It won't happen. The rules are they should not be charging you with the VAT.
Retain all your invoices as you go through the project
If you are buying the materials then you pay VAT as normal as you buy all your supplies but it is critical that you retain all the invoices for the reclaim at the end of the project. Ideally this would happen when Building Control sign off the building. Then you will have 6 months to submit your claim (this change was introduced in December 2023).
If contractors say they have to charge VAT, get them to speak to their accountants
Some of the tradespeople you hire may think they have to charge VAT, but this is not the case. So before you sign them up, give them an opportunity to chat it through with their accountant.
A good accountant should know or be able to find out about this scheme. Andrew says there have been times when he has had to call accountants to bring them up to speed.
Contractors want to charge VAT to make their lives easier!
The reason some tradespeople may be keen to charge VAT is that if they didn't charge VAT where it should have been charged, they would be liable to pay the shortfall. So by charging everyone VAT by default they are never going to run into that problem.
Conversions are also 0% VAT but you get there in a different way
With a conversion, when the contractor comes to site they should be charging you 5% VAT.
You may buy your materials in the same way with the VAT included (currently at 20%) but collecting all your VAT invoices.
Then when it comes to your reclaim, you get your 5% back that you paid the contractor and the 20% you paid for materials.
So overall a conversion is the same as a new build in that by the end you will have paid 0% VAT.
Invoices must have your name on it
When it comes to the invoices there are a few things to note:
They must be in your name or your partners, but not in the name of the builder
They could also be VAT invoices with no name on
The invoices must be originals, not photocopies
They must be VAT invoices, not order confirmations or priced delivery notes or pro formas
A problem occurs when your builder presents you with invoices, and says, “Oh, yeah, you weren't here, I went and bought this for you.” Or when a builder says to you, “Oh, you don't have an account at X, Y, Z. I'll go down… book it to me, it'll be fine.”
If you do end up having invoices with the builder's name on, HMRC will not reimburse you for these.
Be diligent and put invoices in a safe place as you go through the project
Andrew advises putting all your invoices in a big, waterproof plastic box as you receive them.
In today's world invoices may be emailed to you so print them out straightaway and add them to your box.
Think of each one of these invoices as a £50 note! In other words really look after them.
Once your house gets signed off by Building Control the clock starts counting down
In an ideal scenario, once Building Control has signed off your house you would submit your reclaim.
You can only do one return and you only have 6 months in which to do this. The clock will start ticking after your house has been signed off.
It is possible to do a reclaim before the building gets signed off
If you run into financial difficulty and you are forced to live in an unfinished house there is an option to claim before sign off. This may provide you with a little more cash to move the project on.
In England and Wales, there is a authority which band your property for council tax. HMRC will accept that as one of your options in order to be able to submit the VAT reclaim.
Certain goods and services are not included in the scheme
Andrew says there are some items that you can't claim for. Some of these might be obvious because they could be removed (white goods, tools, equipment, garden ornaments, etc.). Other items are not so obvious.
When you go to buy your kitchen, first of all you have the hurdle of, are they supplying and fitting it? Or am I buying it? So is it zero rated or do I pay the VAT and claim it back? Then you have the hurdle of not everything in the kitchen qualifies for VAT exemption, or discounted VAT if it's a conversion. The items in the kitchen that do not qualify as a rule without going into any great detail, other white goods, the fridge, the freezer, the cooker, and so forth.
Large kitchen retailers such as Wren or Howdens provide complete breakdowns of every item they're supplying but it's important to get this from smaller companies too because HMRC will want to make sure all items are VAT exempt.
Carpet is not included!
There are a few bizarre things on the list of items that you cannot claim for. Although nearly all floor coverings are included, carpet is not. Perhaps this is to do with people removing the carpet when they moved house back in the old days.
We'll say a scenario here of floor covering where you've got carpets and we'll say laminate flooring. The bill's £3000 plus VAT but they've supplied and fitted it. So the carpet element It would be VATable, as would the labour for laying the carpet, yet the laminate floor and the labour for laying the laminate floor would be VAT exempt, because they're supplying and fitting it, but not all of it because the carpet doesn't qualify!
If you're hiring someone to file your reclaim, make sure it's a specialist
Andrew says he outsources his regular tax return to people who do it every day.
So if you choose to hire a tax adviser to submit this claim on your behalf, make sure it is someone who does this regularly. Going to the accountant on the high street would probably not be a good option unless they were really familiar with these claims.
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