Strategies to Drive Building Retrofits and Make Cities More Sustainable

Michael Tobias
4 Minutes Read
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    With modern construction materials and energy efficient technologies, a new building can be designed to be highly efficient. However, a complete demolition and reconstruction of existing buildings has zero viability from the financial standpoint, and the resulting waste negates a large portion of the environmental benefits. For this reason, building retrofits are very important to make population centers greener and more sustainable.

    The difficulty of a retrofit varies depending on the building features being upgraded. For instance, an LED lighting retrofit is a much simpler project than a plumbing upgrade. Lighting fixtures can be upgraded with minimal disruption, while plumbing modifications often require a partial demolition, since components are embedded in walls and floors. A professional energy audit is recommended to identify the most promising upgrades for your building.

    Identify the best energy efficiency measures for your building.


    Building retrofits can have high costs, but the investment remains small compared with a new construction. There are several complementary approaches that can drive building improvements:

    • Public outreach, so that building owners are informed about the benefits of retrofits.
    • Incentive programs, which improve the business case for specific building upgrades.
    • Legislation and building code upgrades, establishing a minimum performance baseline.

    In theory, local governments can introduce stringent energy efficiency standards, and make them mandatory for the entire building sector. However, this approach is unfeasible due to the financial burden for building owners. A smarter approach is introducing performance standards gradually, and promoting a higher efficiency level through education and incentives.

    Promoting Building Retrofits Through Public Outreach

    Energy efficiency and renewable generation have become mainstream concepts, but the misconception that they cause financial losses still exists. In most projects, energy efficiency and renewable power offer a favorable business case, achieving a payback period that is only a fraction of their service life.

    LED lighting provides a clear example of the potential savings. One LED bulb is more expensive than one incandescent bulb, but the comparison is not fair because the LED bulb lasts over 20 times longer.

    • When the cost of 20 incandescent bulbs is considered, LED is the clear winner.
    • Also consider that energy savings of over 80% are typical when upgrading from incandescent to LED lighting.
    • The best LED manufacturers normally offer five-year warranties, while the payback period is often less than three years. Having a payback period that is shorter than the warranty period, LED lighting is a very safe investment.

    Common misconceptions often stand in the way of building retrofits. Many technologies that were expensive and unreliable several years ago are now covered by standards and much more affordable. For this reason, public outreach can be a very powerful tool to make buildings greener. The Urban Green Council is an authoritative green building organization that conducts outreach in NYC.

    Incentive Programs for Building Retrofits

    Governments and utility companies often use incentive programs to improve the financial returns from building retrofits. The 30% federal tax credit is a clear example of this, and it been a key factor driving solar power investment throughout the US.

    • According to the Solar Energy Industries Association, the solar power capacity installed in the US has increased by 8,600% since the tax credit was introduced in 2006.
    • Photovoltaic systems are now viable without such a tax credit, but their cost was around five times higher when the benefit was introduced.

    Incentives for building upgrades also include cash rebates and tax exemptions. Cash rebates are paid upfront to building owners when they deploy eligible technologies, reducing their net cost. Tax exemptions also make building retrofits easier to afford, by reducing ownership costs.

    Making Building Upgrades Mandatory with Legislation

    Governments can address critical deficiencies in the building sector by introducing mandatory upgrades. However, this approach must be used with caution, since it can cause a financial burden for some sectors. In particular, the affordable housing sector is susceptible to mandatory building upgrades, since regulated rental rates leave limited funds to invest in the property.


    When legislation is used to drive retrofits, bills must be analyzed carefully or they can threaten the financial viability of some buildings. Ideally, any bill of this type should include exceptions for building sectors with limited access to funding, such as affordable housing.

    Mandatory building upgrades have a reduced impact when they are requested with a long deadline and gradual performance targets. Demanding a large efficiency improvement in a short time will likely result in non-compliance from many building owners, even if they are fully willing to meet the requirements.


    Retrofits can greatly reduce the energy footprint of the building sector, but they are unlikely to happen on the own. Public outreach and continuous education can drive building improvements, by making owners aware of the benefits provided by new technologies. Incentive programs can be useful for emerging technologies, and legislation can target major deficiencies in the building sector with mandatory upgrades.

    Since every property is unique and some technologies are still emerging, a combination of the three approaches yields a better result than focusing on one of them.


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    Tags : Energy Efficiency Building Upgrades building performance green building

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