Retrofits: The Huge Opportunity

January 30, 2020

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! 

Incentive to Action

June 18, 2019

For those of us trying to radically push energy efficiency ahead, a strong incentive program can be a blessing. That’s what we now have with the Illinois Clean Energy Community Foundation. Their Net Zero Energy Building Program provides grant money to non-profits, local governments, and colleges/universities undertaking building to site net zero, typically through Passive House or Net Zero/ILFI Certification. Years ago they would provide funding for LEED projects, but as LEED became more common and the need for energy efficiency more urgent (and attainable!), they raised the bar from LEED to Zero Energy. This is huge—we are seeing an amazing increase in PHIUS buildings: aside from our Park District project, there are at least three other schools and park buildings in construction or design as I write this. Given that the only other PHIUS certified projects in the area at this time of writing are our TBDA designed ones and one affordable multifamily project (Tierra Linda), this is a big deal. It’s also a bit worrisome: for the designers and contractors taking this on for the first time, there will be lessons learned and probably some bumps in the road, just as we’ve had on our projects.

To put this into perspective: we just received grant approval for our Carroll Center project, a retrofit and addition for a park district building that will accommodate preschool, after-school, and adult class programming. It’s about a $1.7M build, and the grant of about $577,000 covers the complexity of the retrofit construction (a gut rehab to eliminate thermal bridges, add insulation, replace windows, and redo mechanical systems), upgrade the new addition to Passive, and cover the certification costs (for energy modeling, rater work, and PHIUS review and certification). Without the grant, the park district would not have been able to justify the costs. So, a big thank you to ICECF!

PHIUS+ 2018

December 10, 2018

The Passive House Institute US reviews the metrics and rationale of their standard on a three-year cycle. PHIUS+ 2018 was announced at the Passive House Conference in Boston this September, and I find it a brilliant and positive advancement.

Keep in mind that the Passive House Standard prioritizes energy conservation, so its main measure is the annual and peak consumption of space conditioning (how long and hard the mechanical system needs to work). When PHIUS+ 2015 was announced, it was noted that the space conditioning metrics were set so that the amount of insulation required to meet the standard would be beyond the cost-optimized amount; the 2015 standard was pushing hard on passive conservation. (more…)

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