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Retrofit for Sustainability with 3 Green Goals


A Pew Research Center survey published in 2021 found that 69 percent of U.S. adults believe large businesses and corporations are doing too little to reduce the effects of global climate change.

Lowering harmful carbon emissions is the key to the global effort to limit warming. And while decarbonization is an ambitious target, there are simple and financially sound steps businesses can take to contribute to this goal.

Building operations is a great place to start, especially if you're managing an older building. That's because the energy used in commercial buildings accounts for a significant proportion of greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. and Canada. And about half of America’s commercial buildings were built more than 40 years ago, before most of our efficiency-driving standards, codes and products existed. Many of these older buildings are ripe for a retrofit using new technologies, techniques and materials.

A retrofit project represents a significant opportunity to support corporate sustainability initiatives and contribute to the global effort to reduce carbon emissions, and it can also help lower building operating costs, especially as energy prices increase. But when you're planning the project, how can you tell which choices are more sustainable than others?

Consider using these three green goals to clarify your work as you plan your retrofit.

Green Goal #1: Use Less Energy

This one's obvious. Setting up your building to consume less energy can immediately help diminish its carbon footprint. According to the Department of Energy, efficiency gains often represent the lowest-cost form of clean energy and the best first step toward zero carbon.

But even when the goal is plain as day, the path that leads there isn't always clear. There are so many projects that can increase efficiency in a building, from tighter air sealing to tankless water heaters, replacement LED bulbs to smarter lighting controls and and thermostats. How do you know where to start?

An energy audit is a smart first step. The data gathered during the audit can support your decisions about which projects to pursue, and it can help you quantify the projected return on investment for the work. Energy audits can include recommendations for short-term, low-cost retrofit projects as well as for larger capital investments in efficiency.

The Department of Energy has published an energy audit guide that describes how the audit process works and how to choose an energy auditor.

The Department of Energy also offers a web-based tool that can help you assess your building's energy performance and identify the areas where retrofits can have the most impact. 

Green Goal #2: Use the Right Kind of Energy

It's important to think about not just the amount of energy your building uses, but the kind of energy, too. The carbon emissions associated with energy consumption depend on how that energy was produced.

This is where efficient electric options become important. Proponents say that moving from systems that are directly powered by fossil fuels to efficient all-electric options like heat pumps will set your building up for a greener future. That's because electric systems can benefit from the long-term effort to produce more renewably sourced electricity. As the electric grid gets greener, your building gets greener, too.

Alicia Ponce is the founder and principal of APMonarch, a sustainability-focused architecture firm in Chicago. She helps building owners lay the groundwork for a green-energy future.

"We do a walk-through to look at the systems in place and how we can retrofit these buildings to go all-electric," Ponce said.

Depending on your location and building design, it may also make sense to install a system to produce renewable power on site, like rooftop solar panels.

"If you can’t afford to make these energy-efficient upgrades now, you can certainly prep for installation later," Ponce said. APMonarch is encouraging building owners to develop the infrastructure for solar panels and to choose all-electric mechanical systems and appliances now. Organizations can also take steps to purchase green power (PDF).

Green Goal #3: Minimize Embodied Carbon

Operating energy is one thing, but it's not everything.

"Embodied carbon is the next big hurdle in commercial retrofits," Ponce said.

Embodied carbon is a way of looking at the emissions associated with the building's materials and construction process through their whole lifecycle. It means thinking about the carbon emissions that went into extracting, manufacturing and transporting the materials, as well as the emissions that will be produced by the construction project and the eventual disposal process. 

Embodied carbon is particularly important to consider when your project involves an interior renovation. The materials that you specify have a real effect on the project's carbon footprint.

"Furniture and lighting renovations make a difference. In the long run, that’s where you make a quicker impact, because these renovations are happening more often than larger retrofits,” said Ponce. Building owners and tenants might renovate interior spaces every 10 years, for example.

So how do you evaluate the embodied carbon implications of your project? Green building certification programs like LEED and Living Building Challenge are a good place to turn. According to Ponce, these kinds of certifications have begun to include guidance on reducing embodied carbon.

To make things easier, you can start by focusing on materials that may have very large emissions footprints, such as aluminum and certain foam insulations, according to an article published by the American Institute of Architects California

Going Beyond Green

Even after you have these green goals squared away, there's still plenty to think about. It's important to remember that every building is part of a larger environment and a broader community.

"It's not just about the building," said Ponce. "It's also about how the building impacts the outdoor landscape and the community around you. It's not just one dot on a map."

The information contained in this article is intended for general information purposes only and is based on information available as of the initial date of publication. No representation is made that the information or references are complete or remain current. This article is not a substitute for review of current applicable government regulations, industry standards, or other standards specific to your business and/or activities and should not be construed as legal advice or opinion. Readers with specific questions should refer to the applicable standards or consult with an attorney.