Retrofits: The Huge Opportunity

January 30, 2020

AirtightnessDecarbonizationEco DesignGreen Architecture

Most of us architects love to design new buildings—we get to shape the mass, the light, the experience, we get to create an architectural expression as true to our ideals as possible. But in a place like Chicago, or really any metro area, that opportunity is less common than remodels, the incremental upgrades people make to existing buildings.

According to Architecture 2030, Buildings generate nearly 40% of annual global GHG emissions, and approximately two-thirds of the building area that exists today will still exist in 2050. If we want to achieve the goals of the Paris Accord, we have to radically reduce the energy consumption of our existing building stock. The good news is that this can be done hand-in-hand with interior remodels that update spaces to modern uses, increase use of natural light, and improve the indoor environmental health for occupants. It can also be done in conjunction with exterior remodels like siding retrofits—tighten up the sheathing and add insulation, THEN apply siding! The bad news is that this is more expensive than a cheap flip or band-aid solution, so it’s rare; and every building that’s patched up to limp along for the next 15-20 years will be consuming too much and not doing as much good for its occupants. Speculative real estate in the market of older buildings is a real problem for the climate—there is no incentive for developers to invest in performance upgrades. This is a problem policy should address.

But I see a positive path forward in two phases: first, long-term energy savings can offset first cost upgrades, often leading to a cash-flow-neutral status compared to lesser performance; for owner-occupants, this can make a lot of sense, but they have to take a long view. Again, the cheap flip or developer-build is not aligned with this approach; it won’t pay back immediately, but in 5-10 years. Second, it’s inevitable that property tax credits, carbon tax, and other financial incentives will give owners the push needed to accelerate adoption of carbon-reduction strategies. I believe municipalities should start with a Climate Action Plan; here in the upper Midwest it will quickly become evident that energy efficiency upgrades will be an early, necessary step, so incentivizing them is important.

While there are general principles of energy retrofits (air sealing, insulation, efficient appliances, etc.), each building is different, so there won’t be a one-size-fits-all approach. Each building’s structural condition, site condition, moisture load, HVAC system, will need to be analyzed, and the solution custom-tailored. Each building will require significant skilled labor to do the weatherization work and testing/verification; these realities mean that local jobs will be created. The sooner this path is taken, the sooner people start saving money by living more comfortably while creating local jobs. And if they hire good architects, they improve beauty and function at the same time!