Do we need a new word for 'retrofit'? – Architect's Journal

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14 March 2022
Source:&nbsp Cristina Monteiro
Post-war renovation of homes was seen as progressive and aspirational – we need to think like that about today’s building upgrades, writes Cristina Monteiro 
At last year’s Festival of Place, Martin Prince-Parrott of Suburban Workshop called for the rethinking of the word ‘retrofit’ when talking about the transformation needed to adapt our existing building fabric.
He suggested we shift to a new term, ‘future-fit’, as a way of thinking more positively and progressively about necessary transformations and the innovation needed to make them happen. While finding the right terms to describe contemporary approaches might feel like a small issue, as we become increasingly aware of the need for adaptation, transformation and reinvention of our built environment, the use of positive language and soft power are essential tools for reimagining a new, equitable world.
It’s easy to forget that, within living memory, our ‘existing’ built fabric has seen radical transformations to get us to the present moment. The 20th century brought not just new forms and typologies of architecture but also a mass renovation programme that introduced plumbing, sanitation and electricity into our domestic and public buildings. Toilets came inside, baths became bathrooms, artificial lighting was made available at the click of a switch. This was rolled out and billed as the modernisation of built infrastructure as part of a wider modern project. Along with universal access to modern medicine, better building conditions led to a healthier and more equal society – a place I grew up in.
Today, we have an undermined planet as well as a welfare system worn out by repeated attacks. In this context ‘retrofitting’ feels like an overly passive and regressive idea; correcting something rather than transitioning to a more desirable and entirely new, cleaner and more environmentally responsible way of living.
Perhaps we need a stronger, deeper understanding of what ‘retro’ means. Maybe it appeals to the wider public and has a stronger currency than we think. The word and variations on it are scattered across shopfronts as I walk up Brick Lane in London on my way to the office: retro clothes and vintage sounds, often referring to a postwar and welfare state aesthetic that empowered working people. Meanwhile, the objects of my generation’s childhood are returning in new forms, with Internet Relay Chat (mIRC) returning as ubiquitous social messaging and ‘retro’ simplified mobile phones and games consoles of the past returning as emulators or miniaturised versions of themselves.
I was born in the early 80s so was part of the first generation to grow up with mobile phones and the internet. It’s interesting to see some of the spirit of those years returning to satisfy us in the present. Often, nostalgic retro-aesthetics and new technology come together to counterbalance and ultimately humanise technological advances that would otherwise feel alien. The TARDIS in Doctor Who is a wonderful example of this, an other-worldly technology, beyond our understanding, fitting snugly into our urban environment in the form of a police box: ubiquitous street furniture in its day. I think of this when I look at our also ubiquitous rows of Victorian terraced housing stock – increasingly smart, responsive and better-performing on the inside while retaining a familiar dress. I remember an old friend who, 20 years ago, fitted PVs to his Victorian house and would then sit in a deckchair before his downstairs cupboard, watching the electricity meter clocking backwards.
How we clothe, describe and access technology and innovation is important, perhaps especially where it concerns repair and reuse. I can imagine a mainstream app that helps people to diagnose existing building fabric, examining inherent issues and thermal improvements, as well as energy production options in the same way interior design apps and kitchen design apps have captured the popular imagination. A tool that connects the public with professionals, suppliers, funding streams and with real data. Something that connects our emotional relationship to our homes with the technological and performance upgrades we desperately need to implement. This merging of innovation and familiarity – technology and culture – is also something we should adopt as architects when conceiving the future-fitting of our existing buildings.
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What we really need to do is get on with improving the energy performance and comfort of our stock. In the last 10 years progress has been terribly slow. Time is too short to think about rebranding and the time it will take to bed in. Better to get on with the job well and everyone will come to understand what good ‘retrofit’ is.
But surely retro is just Latin for backwards? I thought the whole point is to go ‘forwards’?
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