The Importance of Retrofitting Existing Construction to Meet Sustainability Standards

Sustainable retrofits make older buildings more efficient by focusing on these four major goals.
By Chris Gray PhD PE
November 8, 2022

Just about every industry is looking for ways in which they can go “green,” with varying degrees of success. Historically, the real estate industry has underinvested in the infrastructure, even with government incentives and initiatives, buildings and construction continue to pollute our atmosphere and release excess amounts of carbon into the air.

As it stands, existing buildings are, and will continue to be, a main problem. Right now, the real estate sector is responsible for a whopping 40% of global carbon emissions, along with 70% of the world’s electricity, and while we must continue to prioritize new, sustainable buildings, that does not address the countless buildings that are already standing and producing mass amounts of carbon emissions detrimental to our earth’s environment.

It is predicted that 70% of the existing buildings across the world will still be standing by the year 2050, meaning these outdated, inefficient warehouses and office parks aren’t going anywhere. To address the real estate carbon footprint, the industry needs to use modern technological solutions to combat this massive issue and implement new technology that transforms dated buildings into high-value decarbonized assets.

Sustainable retrofits make older buildings more efficient by focusing on four major goals:

  • Reducing energy consumption and eliminating fossil fuels.
  • Resetting the maintenance baseline for the overall building.
  • Improving overall comfort and the overall satisfaction of the occupants of that building.
  • Tying all of that information together to track the long-term performance of the building.

Everyone is going to need to do their part, and not only are local and world governments increasingly committed to the cause, building tenants are also interested in doing what they can to help with decarbonization.

The end goal is ensuring the value of the building to the environment, the owner, the occupants and the community in which the building exists. As record high temperatures and extreme weather events become the norm, they continue to disrupt life and the economy. Owners and tenants are being hit with higher energy bills, especially within older-built assets.

While decarbonizing buildings, owners also have the opportunity to adapt the building to the new conditions and climate extremes, creating a more reliable system and controlling volatility and inflationary energy costs in addition to eliminating emissions.

So, what does this all entail? What does it take to decarbonize a building?

It would be incredible if there was a one-size-fits-all solution to every commercial building currently standing. Unfortunately, creating such a solution is a fool’s errand, especially when you consider the needs in an office, versus an industrial facility, versus a retail space. To start, a building is going to have to go through an intense analysis and assessment to figure out where the biggest problem areas are and what technology is best equipped to deal with them. An energy model will be developed that details where and how energy is going to be used throughout the property. From there, one will be able to get a better sense of the cost and what specific changes are going to need to be made to the building.

Once a retrofit roadmap is in place, it is time to implement the necessary technology. This might take many different forms, such as applying LED lights which are better for the environment, last longer than other lighting technologies and save on electricity costs. To keep from using unnecessary amounts of water, which can become costly quickly, low-flow water fixtures (and water conserving irrigation systems) are often installed, while updating insulation will save on heating costs and better prepare the building for weather extremes. Sealing and weatherizing the building envelope will proactively save on any damage-related costs that might come after a storm or other weather-related phenomena.

Perhaps one of the most beneficial, and complicated, upgrades in the industry today are heat pump-based space and water heating systems. Heat pump technologies can provide both heating and cooling with one system and heat more efficiently than combustion-based technologies or electric resistance systems. Heat pumps can come in many forms and can use multiple sources for heat: geothermal heat pumps move heat from the earth to the indoor space while air-source heat pumps move heat from the outside to the inside.

When applied to a commercial building, like the average American office, which typically has an energy use intensity (EUI) of about 77.8 kBtu/sq ft/year, a deep energy retrofit, with the installation of heat pumps and onsite renewables can bring the EUI all the way down to around 17 kBtu/sq ft/year. This would be revolutionary if adopted across office buildings in the US, which currently bleed unnecessary amounts of energy. Not only would these upgraded office buildings be more energy efficient and climate-friendly, but all operations would function smoother as well, further saving on costs.

From here, it comes time to manage and monitor. It is imperative that an energy management system is implemented, with real-time data on building performance that can let building operators know when and where there are problems, what equipment is not working to the best of its ability and where there are opportunities for more savings. It is entirely possible that more technology will have to be implemented or existing technology might need to be altered after a period of monitoring; again, there is no one-size-fits-all solution to this problem.

A key item to note is the longevity of a retrofit: you want to be sure that you are not simply bringing the building up to current standards and leaving it there. If that were the case, you’d need to do further retrofitting in a few years’ time. You must exceed current standards, ensuring the building will remain resilient for years to come.

Overall, sustainable retrofits promote health and well-being of buildings as decarbonized properties avoid onsite fossil fuel emission, electricity grid emissions and even emissions associated with construction of new buildings. As both the popularity and demand of sustainability and decarbonization rise, cost-efficient retrofit programs will allow property owners to meet and exceed compliance standards for sustainable construction easily and within a reasonable budget.

by Chris Gray PhD PE

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