How Retro-Commissioning Can Extend the Life of a Building—and the Planet

Sustainability certifications are just the beginning. Preserve history and save the planet with these actions from the everyday to the industrial.
By Matthew Zweibruck
May 23, 2023

Sustainability initiatives in the built environment need not be limited to new construction or other large expenditures. Aging facilities have the potential to extend their years of service while also combating greenhouse gas emissions. But what is the best course of action? From building design initiatives such as net zero and electrification to renewables and green building certifications, it can be a complicated and overwhelming field to navigate.

Building owners and property managers may question if they are pursuing the correct programs to minimize their organization’s negative impacts on the environment. With all the initiatives, buzzwords and fancy awards surrounding these initiatives, there are energy-efficiency strategies available to buildings that cut through this noise—strategies that are cost effective, quick to implement, widely abundant and result in an immediate reduction in a building’s impact on climate change.

What impact do buildings have on climate change?

Existing buildings account for approximately 28% of global carbon dioxide (CO2), making the sector a prime target for improvement strategies. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published a report to highlight the consequences of global temperature increase from 1.5°C to 2.0°C, such as:

  • Impacts associated with forest fires and the spread of invasive species (high confidence)
  • Risks associated with saltwater intrusion, flooding and damage to infrastructure (high confidence)
  • Risk of sea-ice-free Arctic Ocean during summer and the irreversible loss of many marine and coastal ecosystems (high confidence)
  • Risks to marine biodiversity, fisheries and ecosystems, and their functions and services to humans (high confidence)
  • Risks from droughts, precipitation deficits and heavy precipitation (medium confidence)

The climate-change saga is at a point where we are working just to limit global warming to a surface global temperature increase of 1.5°C. The goal is no longer to avoid the negative impacts of climate change, because that opportunity has already come and gone. What we can do as an industry is to help avoid the potentially more catastrophic consequences of climate change that appear inevitable if global temperatures increase above and beyond 2.0°C.

Sustainability plans that win for buildings and the environment

To combat climate change, there has been a notable increase in green building program participation, as organizations attempt to mitigate their facility greenhouse gas emissions and gain recognition for their sustainability practices. While each program has its own specific objectives, they all have the common goal of promoting and recognizing efficient, healthy and sustainable buildings. The most prominent programs include:

  • LEED: Administered by the USGBC, Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design certification program is the most widely used green building rating system in the world. Available to virtually all building types, LEED provides a framework for healthy, highly efficient and cost-saving green buildings. LEED certification is a globally recognized symbol of sustainability achievement and leadership.
  • WELL: The WELL Building Standard is a vehicle for buildings and organizations to deliver more thoughtful and intentional spaces that enhance human health and wellbeing.
  • ENERGY STAR: ENERGY STAR certified buildings save energy, save money and help protect the environment by generating fewer greenhouse gas emissions than typical buildings. To be certified as ENERGY STAR, a building must meet strict energy performance standards set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

There are also financial consequences for organizations choosing to ignore this global crisis. Many companies face pressure in the boardroom and from shareholders to be more accountable for the impact business decisions have on society and the world. Active involvement with emerging standards such as environmental, social and governance (ESG) is a necessity as organizations may encounter financial consequences for not participating. Public concern over the worsening effects of climate change will continue to drive environmental policy in a direction that brings awareness to these programs.

The current suite of popular green building programs delivers a wide range of benefits to participating organizations. These include sustainable and efficient designs for buildings, healthy and comfortable tenants, recognition and accountability among peer organizations and the public. These programs are here to stay and will only become more integral to building design, construction and management processes in the future. Building owners and operators are highly encouraged to review these programs and take inventory of existing and proposed building stock to identify opportunities to pursue green building certifications.

Actions speak louder than words in sustainability

The importance of green building programs cannot be understated; however, when it comes to combating climate change, it is only one of many tools organizations can implement to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. In relying too heavily on these programs, companies may be overstating their commitment to sustainability and the positive impacts they are having on the environment.

Organizations need to ask themselves if their efforts have been in pursuit of appearing green rather than being green. If it is the former, what insights can be provided to those organizations to bolster their efforts?

Going beyond certifications with retro-commissioning

Green building programs are highly recommended and should be pursued where possible. Issues arise when these programs are pursued and other readily available energy-reduction strategies are ignored. This is the disconnect that often occurs between sustainability recognition and sustainability itself.

For example, a commercial building with LEED, ENERGY STAR and WELL certifications is not guaranteed to be operating efficiently. That can be a big problem for building owners looking to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and energy costs. Many green building programs are inherently passive, meaning there is no active monitoring of existing building stock beyond benchmarking. The energy-use intensity of a building does provide good metrics for determining the need for overall energy efficiency improvements, but it does not provide insight into easier, simpler energy efficiency changes that can also make a measurable difference.

One solution is to pair participation in green building programs with direct action through building optimization and retro-commissioning programs. Retro-commissioning (RCx) is a process that optimizes building energy performance through the identification and implementation of low- to no-cost energy efficiency measures, which can often be implemented without the installation of any new equipment.

This process can take less than a few months, is extremely cost effective and can be initiated and occasionally revisited without any administratively intensive processes. RCx also avoids the rigidity of capital grade energy efficiency improvements, which are often dictated through long-term budget planning.

The retro-commissioning services umbrella also includes monitoring-based commissioning (MBCx), a more advanced form of RCx involving the installation of analytical software to constantly monitor building performance and provide automatic alerts on opportunities for energy efficiency improvements and maintenance requirements. This technology assures all avenues for building-performance improvements are being pursued.

The retro-commissioning process is essential to building operations and energy efficiency, so much so that some states are beginning to require larger commercial buildings to participate in occasional retro-commissioning studies. Until it is a requirement in every state, it is crucial that RCx be promoted and implemented wherever possible. These overall efforts can only succeed when high-level sustainable design and management initiatives and practices are paired with direct quantitative action to improve building performance.

by Matthew Zweibruck

Matt Zweibruck is an energy engineer with the Energy + Eco group at ESD, a leading global engineering firm specializing in mechanical, electrical, plumbing, fire protection, life safety, structural, and technology engineering. He possesses expertise in the demand-side energy services industry and is passionate about identifying and investigating the feasibility of energy conservation measures for large commercial, educational, and medical facilities. Matt has worked with clients and completed projects in retro-commissioning, energy auditing, project management and building data analysis.


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