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Why We Need More Green Retrofits, Not Just New Builds

As people engage in ongoing discussions about how to make buildings more sustainable and reach net-zero goals, they often focus on new builds. That is the right approach in some cases, but individuals also need to explore the possibilities of green retrofits.

Retrofitting Allows Working With What Is There

Cases often exist where the existing building is still structurally sound but it is in great need of sustainable upgrades. In such instances, it does not make sense to construct a building from the ground up or tear down what is there. Doing either of those things could contradict many of a project’s sustainability goals.

However, green retrofitting encourages people to assess buildings to see the most effective ways to make them more sustainable. The options they choose are often significantly less involved than new builds, but they get great results.

Consider the case of a European Union-funded IMPRESS project. It involved facade retrofitting that improved the aesthetics and energy efficiency of buildings constructed between 1950 and 1975.

People working on the initiative used lightweight polyurethane panels that achieved thermal and sound insulation. Modeling suggested buildings would become 22% more energy efficient per year if the whole exteriors featured them. Team members also explored opportunities to use 3D printing in their retrofitting work.

Projects like this show why it is often more cost-effective to move ahead with a retrofit instead of building something new. People working on such efforts can continue benefiting from the parts of the building that still serve their purposes while targeting the aspects that need sustainable improvements.

A Retrofit Preserves Historical Merit and Supports Future-Proofing

People tasked with updating historical buildings must often figure out how to do the job while retaining much of the existing architecture and features that characterize the structure as being from a specific period.

A common suggestion is that once churches reach 80% capacity, they need more seating. Many churches have histories dating back hundreds of years, meaning it is not feasible to tear them down to make new ones. Still, many church administrators may realize it is time to make sustainable upgrades. When they arrange to have more seating, they could also investigate how to help the building keep its historical features while equipping it for a sustainable future.

Getting the building ready for what is ahead may also make it more appealing for the groups that use it later. That was the thought process behind a green retrofit for a 1950s London office block and pub that will get retrofitted into an 11-story office building with rooftop gardens.

The initial plan was to demolish the existing building and create a new one. However, this current strategy retains 72% of the present structure. People said that — in addition to making the building more sustainable — this plan results in a more enjoyable and adaptable space for future generations.

This is an excellent example of how people must not be too quick to prioritize demolition and new builds. Retrofitting has numerous merits worth considering.

Retrofitting Enables Pursuing Industry-Recognized Ratings

The Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) rating system is known worldwide. It is also a representation of sustainability. A LEED-certified building conserves water and is energy efficient. Moreover, these buildings are healthier and safer for occupants compared to non-certified ones.

Some people think only new builds are eligible for LEED certification. However, there are options for existing buildings, too. Working toward those is an excellent way for companies to show their values and emerge as peer leaders. LEED certification could also play a significant role in attracting new employees or residents, depending on the building type.

However, a Carnegie Mellon University study showed LEED certification does not guarantee better energy efficiency in retrofitted buildings. This research concerned federal buildings. One of the main findings was LEED-based retrofits are not always the most straightforward way to improve energy efficiency.

The people who worked on it clarified that the findings occurred because LEED certification weighs several attributes. Energy efficiency is a heavily weighted one, but not the only component of a LEED score. Some buildings were more energy efficient after a LEED retrofit. However, energy efficiency sometimes decreased in structures with higher LEED water-usage scores.

Green Retrofits Deserve a Closer Look

Retrofitting in favor of sustainability is not always the most appropriate approach. However, these examples prove it often can be and is therefore always worth considering as a possibility.

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