Noninvasive Retrofits Can Help Existing Buildings Become More Efficient with Fewer Headaches

Noninvasive Retrofits Can Help Existing Buildings Become More Efficient with Fewer Headaches

Although the sustainable design movement continues to grow exponentially in the new-construction market, energy-efficient design in the existing building stock remains a less mature practice area. Nevertheless, each year another 5 billion square feet of existing buildings are renovated—equal to the yearly total square footage of new construction, according to a 2013 Washington, D.C.-based American Institute of Architects report, “Deep Energy Retrofits: An Emerging Opportunity.”

As Manhattan’s oldest church, St. Paul’s Chapel on Broadway is a historic landmark that was retrofitted with air conditioning using innovative, minimally invasive strategies by the design team at Murphy Burnham & Buttrick Architects, New York. PHOTO: Murphy Burnham & Buttrick Architects

As Manhattan’s oldest church, St. Paul’s Chapel on Broadway is a historic landmark that was retrofitted with air conditioning using innovative, minimally invasive strategies by the design team at Murphy Burnham & Buttrick Architects, New York. PHOTO: Murphy Burnham & Buttrick Architects


In fact, commercial building owners will invest an estimated $960 billion globally by 2023 to green their current infrastructure, focusing their efforts on energy-efficient HVAC, windows, lighting, plumbing fixtures and other key technologies, according to 2015 data from the U.S. Green Building Council, Washington. These upgrades, while often time consuming and costly to implement, yield significant financial returns and have been proven to be competitive differentiators when it comes to attracting and retaining tenants.

According to the AIA report, improving efficiency by 30 percent in the nation’s pre-1980 building stock would result in $1 trillion of energy savings over 10 years, requiring an upfront investment of just $279 billion. Further, USGBC notes buildings designed to LEED or ENERGY STAR standards command higher rents and selling prices when compared to traditional existing buildings.

Although the business case for retrofitting existing buildings is clear, many owners face hurdles presented by legacy equipment within their facilities that wastes energy, requires increased maintenance and incurs more downtime than newer systems. However, a full-scale renovation can be cost prohibitive and disruptive to ongoing operations and tenants. The good news is a number of cost-effective, noninvasive retrofitting strategies and solutions are available that can help building owners to achieve desired energy-efficiency targets and reap the benefits of operating and leasing higher-performing existing facilities.

Define the Problem, Conduct a Tune-up

By definition, the term “noninvasive retrofit” is as straightforward as its name implies, and David J. Varner, AIA, IIDA, LEED AP, and office director at Washington-based SmithGroupJJR, explains it best: “For me, a noninvasive retrofit is, in a sense, as much as a landlord can get away with that doesn’t cause tenants to leave.”

Citing “invisible” strategies, such as recommissioning a building, Varner notes there are a number of ways building owners can address facilities that have slipped into apparent obsolescence. “A lot of it is just management of electrical and especially HVAC systems,” he notes, suggesting that what most aging buildings really need is a tune-up and the installation of building automation systems.

Mike Bigelow, LEED AP BD+C, P.E., and senior technical services consultant for Green Building Services, Portland, Ore., agrees and says the process of applying an unobtrusive retrofitting solution begins by diagnosing existing problems within the facility.

“A typical noninvasive retrofit might start with gathering data through enhanced sensors or installing improved controllers and really trying to get a better understanding of how people use the space,” Bigelow says. “Those are all really kind of key areas of the investigation. We’re looking mostly at information, how we get that information and the quality of that information.”

Special consideration was given to creating a balance between natural and electric light at St. Hilda’s and St. Hugh’s school, helping the existing building to achieve greater energy efficiency. PHOTO: Esto

Special consideration was given to creating a balance between natural and electric light at St. Hilda’s and St. Hugh’s school, helping the existing building to achieve greater energy efficiency. PHOTO: Esto


Bigelow says the purpose of conducting a building-performance audit is to understand the facility as a whole system and to look for small, operational changes that could reduce waste and inefficiencies. For example, a large, older building that uses steam for providing heat can be easily retrofitted with wireless steam trap monitors to help locate leaks in the system. Pneumatic controls can also be upgraded with electronic ones—not necessarily entirely replaced but at key points in the system—that can allow the operators of the building to use the existing pneumatic system in a more modern fashion using wireless controls with better precision, Bigelow suggests.

Taking a step even further back, Jeffrey Murphy, AIA, LEED AP, and founding partner of Murphy Burnham & Buttrick Architects, New York, says to successfully address the problems with an aging facility, clients would be wise to bring in a contractor and architect early in the process to work together to uncover issues—and for good reason. “The alternative is us, as architects, coming in and trying to figure out what’s there—maybe having a lot of things in our drawings that are unknown conditions that will, down the line, end up becoming change orders—and presuming to know what the best way to build this renovation is. We find that getting in early with folks who are actually going to do the work is an incredibly efficient way of coming up with real solutions and cost-effective solutions,” he observes.

Tools: Low- to High-Tech

On the far end of the low-tech spectrum, Varner points to a client that installed a series of plug strips into wall sockets in its offices that feature a wireless connector, which sends data to a central computer that tracks energy consumption of desk equipment. He says the simple solution actually inspired a bit of competition and even good-natured trash talking among the company’s environmentally conscious employees.

About the Author

Robert Nieminen
Robert Nieminen is a freelance writer; the former editor of Interiors & Sources magazine; and retrofit’s editor at large, specializing in interiors. Under his direction, Interiors & Sources was the recipient of several publishing awards, as well as a pioneer of sustainability reporting.

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