“The most sustainable building is the existing one”: dereliction and the climate crisis

Published by Kayle Crosson on

28 January 2022 

When Frank O’Connor and Jude Sherry moved back to Cork City from Amsterdam, they noticed some similarities between the two.

In particular, there was the architecture and rich heritage of both cities. But there was one glaring difference they saw between them: the scale of dereliction. 

Amsterdam for the most part had done a lot to address the issue, Frank and Jude found, but it was an entirely different story when it came to Cork City and the general attitude in Ireland to “just accept” these visual and communal eye sores.  

Frank and Jude started Anois back in 2016, which focuses on sustainable design and the circular economy model. In May of last year, the agency published This is Derelict Ireland, which delved into debunking common myths around dereliction and chronicled their own assessment of its extent in Cork. 

Looking to their own analysis, there are 340 derelict properties alone within 2 kilometres of the city centre island. 

Academics and advocates alike have made it clear that addressing dereliction is critical for Ireland to tackle its ongoing housing crisis. But it’s also part of the solution to another ongoing emergency: the climate crisis. 

How we got here 

According to Cork City Council, a derelict site is “any property/land that detracts, or is likely to detract to a material degree from the amenity, character or appearance of land in the neighborhood in question because of neglected use or unsightly condition”. 

It could be ruinous, in a dangerous condition, neglected, decaying, unsightly, contain litter, rubbish, debris or waste and is primarily caused by a lack of care and maintenance “further compounded by long-term vacancy,” Anois’ report said. 

Their document also warned that it tends to have a “contagion character” as a trend: if left unaddressed, it can quickly spread to other parts of urban areas. 

When present, dereliction also has a number of detrimental consequences on a community. 

According to a study from the Scottish Land Commission, living within proximity to long-term vacancy or dereliction can lead to negatives on physical and mental health, on the local economy and the environment, as pollutants can leach into soil and waterways and residents can be exposed to toxic materials such as asbestos. 

The exact national number of vacant derelict properties is hard to know – but there is some indication of the scale of the problem in the 2016 Census, which found that there were over 180,000 vacant (but not all derelict) properties in the country. 

The road to the current rate of dereliction in Ireland goes all the way back to the 1980s and the commodification of housing, according to Assistant Professor of Social Policy at Maynooth University and Housing Shock author Rory Hearne. 

Then when Ireland entered a period of accelerated economic growth in the mid-1990s, the way the country treated housing and the urban environment completely changed through a developer-led approach. 

Estates cropped up on the edges of towns, transport shifted to the use of the car, and town centres ultimately started to decline during the Celtic Tiger years, Prof Hearne told The Green News. 

Planning of towns and cities became completely oriented towards facilitating the development of green field sites in the 1990s and 2000s and there was “no consideration of the value of living in a town centre,” he added. 

And in the mid-2010s, we see that the focus remains on new build developments rather than looking at our existing housing stock. 

Now with an electorate increasingly concerned by the housing crisis, we’re seeing at the policy level, “at last a recognition that vacancy and dereliction has to be addressed. It’s key to bringing back rural areas and it’s sustainable,” according to Rory Hearne.

And just last year The Government’s Housing For All Strategy mentions the need to address vacant and derelict properties, and stresses that it will strengthen the capacity of Local Authorities to address the issue. 

Notably, the document says that rejuvenating towns and cities and “breathing life into once loved buildings” will support another key component of the current Government’s agenda: the Climate Action Plan. 

“The most sustainable building is the existing one”

A statement you’ll often hear from people working on this issue is one that tends to stick: “the most sustainable building is the existing one”. 

And that line has a number of factors behind it.

According to the Irish Green Building Council, 11 per cent of our annual emissions in Ireland come from the construction process. Cement, a key component of many new builds, would be the third largest emitter of carbon dioxide in the world if it was a country, only to be surpassed by the United States and China. 

Across every stage of its production, it accounts for approximately four to eight per cent of global carbon dioxide emissions. Only coal, oil and gas are greater sources of greenhouse gas emissions when it comes to materials. 

Then we’ve got the matter of waste. Construction and demolition created 8.8 million tonnes of waste in Ireland in 2019, according to the Environmental Protection Agency

In a submission to the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Housing, Anois stressed that the aforementioned EPA figure amounted to a staggering 63 per cent of all waste generated that year in the country. Only 6.8 per cent of the waste was recycled with very little actually being reused. 

When it comes to new builds, there seems to be an industry-wide move to a timber-framed model – but that then brings up the issue of how the wood itself is sourced and how sustainable it would be. 

Therefore, the use of existing buildings would reduce both national construction emissions and waste – hence making them “the most sustainable”. 

How to address it 

If real political will and effort is put into tackling dereliction, the issue could be resolved within five to ten years, according to Frank O’Connor. 

One of the current key stumbling blocks when it comes to addressing the phenomenon is a lack of enforcement of existing regulations under the 1990 Derelict Site Act, such as the low collection rate of the dereliction levy. 

But if Local Authorities followed through on the legislation and collected the sum in full, you’d start to see “a huge pot of money” that could be used to rejuvenate town centres, Frank told The Green News. 

If you had every derelict site registered, you could eventually issue Compulsory Purchase Orders (CPOs), which would mean a local authority could take ownership of the land and property without the consent of the owner and provide them with compensation. 

And beyond presenting solutions to the current and unfolding housing and climate crises in Ireland, addressing dereliction and restoring these homes ultimately serve a purpose as the world adapts to the climate emergency. 

“We need to future-proof our cities,” Jude Sherry warned. 

“As the climate crisis hits, prices for materials will massively increase. We need to live in a way that is less consumption-based and that can only be achieved by living more densely. 

We need to make these areas nice, comforting and appealing to everyone to make that change,” she said. 

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