Six Ways Existing Buildings Can Save the Planet

In the developed world, new construction is not the most effective leverage point for stopping climate change. It is buildings like these that will save us.

The design and construction industry has a funny way of drawing a thick, dark line between new and existing buildings. By definition, though, every building starts existing as soon as it’s built. That thick, dark line is more often a fuzzy gray area where all sorts of vital processes—like showing the operations team how the energy management system works—can get lost. It also masks other realities, like the fact that major renovation projects pretty much count as new construction, and that the difference between “major” and “minor” is a judgment call.

To put it another way: we’re all in this together.

Six Strategies for Improving Building Performance

Maybe you’re a building owner trying to decide whether to raze or retrofit, or a facility manager looking with alarm at your first year of required energy reporting stats. Perhaps you’re an office worker who forgets to turn off the lights, or an architect using post-occupancy reviews to inform future design strategies.

Whatever your role in the built environment, you’re part of a team that needs to work in concert toward a common goal: putting an end to excessive carbon emissions from buildings, which are threatening life as we know it.

Here’s how we’re going to do that.

  1. Retrofits with 30-year carbon payback

“Every strategy from here on out needs to be evaluated in terms of its time frame,” argues Larry Strain, FAIA, principal at Siegel & Strain Architects. “It’s not ‘What can we do?’ or ‘What are the potential savings?’ but ‘What are the potential savings within the timeframe that’s relevant?’”

Given that framework, Strain says, “New net-zero buildings aren’t going to get us [to zero carbon] because we don’t build enough” in North America. Not only that, he adds, but “building a net-zero building also [requires] embodied carbon.” Strain is helping form a coalition of leaders from Architecture 2030, the Carbon Leadership Forum, and other groups to advocate for a dual focus on embodied carbon and operational carbon in existing buildings (see Strain’s editorial in this issue, Building Materials and the Time Value of Carbon).

This network is looking at how the two problems—embodied carbon of building materials and operational carbon of existing buildings—could share a single solution. And that solution is retrofitting existing buildings for net-zero-energy operations. Remodeling an existing building typically requires only one-half to one-third of the embodied carbon of new construction, Strain says, but the real issue is how long it takes for a project (whether a renovation or new construction) to pay back its carbon investment. If it’s more than 30 years, “then we should do something else,” he argues. The group is now working on setting typology-based benchmarks for embodied carbon as well as researching the types of buildings most suitable for net-zero retrofits. Strain points to the financial success of a California developer that is making money by turning nondescript concrete tilt-ups into net-zero charmers.

Given the nature of most existing building stock, this approach can be a tricky sell for the design and construction community, Strain concedes. “Architects don’t like to talk about stopping building and remodeling instead. I do think that LEED and [the Living Building Challenge] have to start really talking about existing buildings. New buildings are so much of what they talk about and give awards for.”

As a start, he says the network’s research so far has led his firm to shift its own thinking. “Just in this last year, we’re doing quite a lot more remodels and retrofits. We’re consciously seeking them out.”

  1. Awards for operational leadership

The U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) and the International Living Future Institute (ILFI) might not have a primary focus on existing buildings, but there are other programs that incentivize operational improvements.

With their humorous approach and high-profile celebration of “the unsung heroes of the retrofit market,” the EBies, a set of annual awards for existing building projects, are one such effort. The awards recognize building owners, facility managers, engineers, and other professionals who demonstrate leadership in energy conservation, tenant engagement, and other areas.

The AIA Committee on the Environment (COTE) Top Ten awards recognize projects designed for high performance. In the last few years, the awards have added the Top Ten Plus program to celebrate an eleventh annual winner—given to a former award recipient that demonstrates at least one year of exceptional operational savings.

LEED has an entire rating system for existing buildings, which includes an energy performance prerequisite. Buildings certified under LEED v4 must be able to achieve an Energy Star score of 75, meaning that the project performs better than 75% of the building stock. This cutoff is a barrier for project teams and presents a scalability problem for which Jenny Carney, principal at YR&G, is working on a solution.

“What would it look like to design a program to push out best practices for a huge swath of building stock?” Carney says she and others began to ask. The answer is a new rating system called the BIT Building program, which Carney describes as “barrier-free.” Building owners and managers are given a program manual of best practices and a set of planning tools, as well as additional support, and they are publicly recognized when they demonstrate annual energy savings of 10%, 20%, or 30% compared with their own baseline. Carney said that, although teams will report through Energy Star Portfolio Manager, they will benchmark only against themselves. BIT is currently in a beta-testing phase, with 70 projects participating so far.

“It’s explicitly not about the Energy Star score,” she says. Also absent from the conversation or rating system is any discussion of carbon emissions—even though addressing climate change is a major driver for the program. “We want a conversation that’s empowering as opposed to terrifying,” she says, and reduced carbon emissions are “an automatic byproduct of doing energy benchmarking.  We wanted to eliminate distractions from the more fundamental issue: how can we best make our buildings more energy efficient?”

  1. Money-saving efficiency upgrades

Perhaps the strongest incentive for running a building more efficiently is simply the opportunity to save money, and that’s not lost on Carney—or on Jon Moeller, CEO at MACH Energy. As Moeller notes, there are three main ways to save money on energy: demand-response agreements, envelope and HVAC retrofits, and—by far the most cost-effective—operational efficiency.

Like other energy-management systems available on the market, MACH software analyzes energy data “to automatically identify opportunities” for savings, Moeller explains—like starting up the HVAC system at 5 a.m. instead of 2 a.m., for example. “Energy Star is a good first step, but it doesn’t tell you how the building is operating,” so an energy management system provides that granularity.

Each opportunity identified by the MACH software, for example, is paired with an “initiative”—a description of what type of change could be made—along with estimated energy, carbon, and dollar amounts that could be saved each year by taking action. “People can do something right away without having to parse through the data,” Moeller claims.

  1. Investor demand

Global real estate investors can add extra incentives to help scale this process, according to Moeller. The investment benchmark GRESB —which scores the sustainability performance of building portfolios to aid investors—is gradually becoming a driver in the existing buildings space, he says, noting that MACH recently considered bidding on a contract that was requesting energy management assistance to set a portfolio baseline for future GRESB reporting. “It’s early days, but people are starting to get the message.”

Cliff Majersik, executive director of the Institute for Market Transformation (IMT), concurs. “I think it has enormous potential. It is tapping into something which is very powerful,” Majersik says of GRESB. Building owners, he adds, “are quite aware of how they compare in the GRESB surveys. More and more owners are taking the GRESB survey, and more and more investors are joining GRESB.”

Unfortunately, there have been problems with owners gaming GRESB in the past, he says, though that may be getting harder. “GRESB is figuring out ways to tighten up the questions,” he claims, to ensure that people are “doing a good job of managing buildings and not just a good job of answering the surveys.” Assuming those issues are worked out, GRESB offers “the possibility of a very large impact over time.” (Disclosure: The author’s spouse is a software engineer who helps develop the GRESB website and online surveys.)

  1. Benchmarking and disclosure laws

But GRESB is voluntary, and IMT is an advocate of energy reporting laws, which typically require commercial and institutional building owners to measure, benchmark, and publicly disclose their energy use each year using Energy Star Portfolio Manager. After a few years of this data coming in, Majersik sees evidence that it’s actually working.

Though he cautions that there is not clear evidence that energy reporting laws caused these changes, Majersik says it’s a reasonable inference “that a large part of the savings is due to benchmarking.” Buildings covered by benchmarking laws have “3% lower bills than control buildings,” he claims, adding that this is likely “attributable to increased attentiveness to energy” which these laws precipitate. “That’s not the rate you need to see to get to the Architecture 2030 goals, but it’s a good start.”

“We’re going to need to do more to avert catastrophic climate change,” adds Majersik, but “we’re encouraged by things happening in the private sector,” such as green leasing, “better tenant build-out guidelines, and more submetering” of tenant spaces. These initiatives help mitigate the problem of “split incentives,” which can take one of two forms. In some markets, landlords are paying for energy that tenants use, so tenants have no incentive to conserve. In other markets, tenants are paying all the bills, so landlords have no incentive to make energy-efficiency upgrades.

Aligning these incentives is a high priority for IMT. Designers can play a role by ensuring that project teams for new construction and major renovations include all the key stakeholders—property managers, tenants, occupants, facility managers—who will be responsible for the building’s energy use over the long term.

  1. Code leverage

Unfortunately, Majersik argues, most U.S. cities are not using one of the most powerful tools in their toolbox: existing energy codes.

“Many building departments are under-resourced and feel they can’t do a good job of enforcing everything,” says Majersik. “Unfortunately the energy code gets short shrift.” For example, he notes, tenant fit-outs are often covered by the energy code, but it’s almost never enforced. “There’s even some new construction that’s not nearly meeting the code. That’s bad for owners and tenants; there’s some very cost-effective things that can be done.” If you’re already replacing the lighting, for example, it lowers first costs, life-cycle costs, and environmental impacts to reduce the lighting power density at the same time. Instead, “people are operating as they always have,” he laments—including interior designers, architects, and engineers. Design teams can short-circuit this regulatory neglect by insisting on meeting code minimums even if they don’t anticipate enforcement.

Ed Mazria, FAIA, founder of Architecture 2030, sees hope in working with local governments on codes as well. “We are calling for triggering meeting the code standards whenever there’s a zoning or building use change,” he told BuildingGreen. “If you want to get a zoning upgrade, you have to begin by renovating existing building stock.”

This is an essential step, Mazria says, because right now “the renovations we are undertaking are essentially offsetting the new energy” added by efficient new construction. Although the building industry overall “has peaked and flattened our curve” of carbon emissions, “now we have to go down. The normal renovation cycles are not getting us past flattening out the curve.”

Mazria also wants to see the energy code enforced at the point of sale when real estate changes hands. “There’s a huge amount of buildings that change hands in areas all over the country and all over the world. It’s a great opportunity because financing is available at that time”—and most will be getting new tenants and fit-outs anyway. “If they are buying for income and they’re not going to do any renovation, or the tenants aren’t changing, you [would] just allow them to purchase renewable energy to offset the amount of renovation you would need to do to bring the building down to the energy code.” That option, he concludes, makes the point-of-sale code trigger “in essence noncontroversial.”

Can We Really Pull This Off?

With so many initiatives just getting off the ground and existing building operational improvements and renovations just starting to make a slight dent in emissions, it can be easy to get discouraged. Can we possibly turn such a large ship completely around in the next few decades?

Majersik, for one, thinks we can. “Across the board, I see people who understand and believe the science on climate change and want to do the right thing,” he says. It’s not just architects but also tenants, building owners, facility managers, and many others. “They feel constrained by forces outside of their control,” he says. “That gives me optimism that if you can just sort of connect the dots—make information transparent, align the incentives—you can see a lot of progress in the built environment.” As that progress gains momentum, he adds, “People will see that buildings can use less energy and become more profitable, and that will embolden people to think bigger.”

Although this can take a long time to effect in the building industry “because the construction and building ownership sectors are so fragmented,” Majersik believes it’s possible to accelerate the process and, ultimately, help existing buildings save the planet.

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