Economic Stimulus! Sometimes What We're Looking For is Right Under Our Nose.

Equitable Building Denver CO photo

The Equitable Building, Denver, CO is currently undergoing significant energy retrofit including window rehab, lighting, controls, HVAC, and infiltration reduction. Image credit: St. Charles Town Co.

By Elaine Gallagher Adams, RMI

Economic stimulus? Have I got a deal for you! With over 300 billion square feet of existing built space in the United States alone, we have an astounding opportunity for transformational sustainability while leading the world in building technology, creating millions of jobs and profitable financial investments, and revitalizing communities. Retrofitting existing buildings provides the most profound, yet most under-appreciated, strategy for reducing resource consumption and increasing wealth
Looking at current energy and water consumption, we see significant possible savings in existing buildings, both in resources and money. Developers and energy service companies (ESCO’s) often underestimate the magnitude of potential savings due to a fear of failure and a tendency to establish achievable goals that don’t scare the stakeholders. For instance, most un-renovated buildings today use up to three times the energy they should. And, due to inefficiencies and transmission losses, we only receive approximately 1/5 of the centrally generated power provided for us. That means these buildings may use 15 times the energy generation required to operate the building! Establishing a goal of 66% reduction in both energy and water consumption is not only realistic but is also a powerful motivator for improving building technology. Be bold.

The U.S. Energy Information Agency publishes a building energy consumption report every four years, which shows the worst energy performers are buildings constructed between 1959-1989 -- during the first energy crisis! The lowest energy users were generally constructed before 1959, with post-1989 construction coming in a close second. I couldn’t make up data this good. The numbers do not yet reflect the past four years, but modern high performance buildings are still a relatively small percentage and may not tip the scale enough to change that ranking. Clearly, we must look at all existing buildings, but focusing on mid-century buildings within large building inventories can help us prioritize. This is also where we need the most research and development in building technology -- retrofitting curtain walls and older aluminum windows, what to do with low ceilings and over-tinted windows, and how to effectively add shading devices to lightweight structures.

Buildings over 50 years old were often constructed without mechanical air conditioning, and they were often regionally climate responsive with effective solar orientation. Many original human comfort features, such as awnings and natural ventilation, have been removed or restricted. Restoring them can reduce energy consumption. Contrary to popular belief, single pane windows are not the kiss of death in an older building; loose leaky windows are. Wood windows can be repaired, and glazing film has come a long, long way recently. In addition, we can add solar panels to any existing building, including historic ones, to either reduce energy or eliminate costs.

In 2002, the Colorado Historical Foundation released a study of economic benefits of historic preservation in Colorado, which received national attention. The findings were beyond what anyone predicted. In the previous 20 years, historic preservation construction projects created over 29,000 jobs, generated over $2 billion, and eight small towns participating in Main Street revitalization programs attracted over $21.5 million in private investments.

Historic buildings account for only 16% of the current built space in the US, and Colorado is only one of 50 states, so if we extrapolate for a rough national view, existing building retrofits have the potential to create 435,000 jobs per year, and generate $30 billion every year. Add to that increased property values and lower utility costs resulting from renovated buildings.

My associate at RMI, Michael Kinsley, has proposed that we can go a step further and create predictable, stable investment vehicles for those jaded by the recent volatile market situation. If the average building retrofit nets approximately 12% utility cost savings, then that can potentially be turned into a profitable investment vehicle while providing a viable financing option for building owners. What’s not to like?

To truly realize the potential of retrofitting 300 billion square feet of built space, we must create and nurture a culture of reuse, repair, and reinvestment in everything from our personal lives to regional planning. In his 2005 article (APT Bulletin 36), "Embodied Energy and Historic Preservation: A Needed Reassessment," Mike Jackson calculates that it would take 57 years to recover the energy lost in demolishing a building and reconstructing a new one. As Gary Liss says, "If you’re not for zero waste, how much waste are you for?" Reinvesting in existing neighborhoods and commercial areas also reduces sprawl and avoids new infrastructure.

The national historic preservation community has begun to embrace sustainable retrofits for all existing buildings. The U.S. Green Building Council recently distributed a letter to encourage existing building retrofits in response to this economic downturn. But federal energy tax credits still focus on new construction and specific equipment replacement (ridiculously under-credited). I hold hope that our new administration will see the value and potential power of policies incentivizing existing building retrofits and renovation -- similar to tax credits that exist for historic preservation -- open to all existing buildings and requiring significant energy and water consumption reduction measures. Maybe even 66%! After all, if you aim low, you’ll likely hit your target.

**I’m not alone; check out Architecture 2030’s brilliant proposal for the Obama Administration

Elaine Gallagher Adams is a Senior Consultant on RMI's Built Environment Team
More on historic buildings from TreeHugger archives.
Edinburgh Scotland To Lift Ban On Energy Efficient Windows In ...
Big Steps in Building: Ban Demolition
GreenBuild: Richard Moe Has a Tough Row to Hoe
Preservation is Sustainability

Economic Stimulus! Sometimes What We're Looking For is Right Under Our Nose.
By Elaine Gallagher Adams, RMI