Long Life + Loose Fit
Out with the New, In with the Old
Most people likely imagine that the practice of architecture is all about designing sleek new buildings destined for splashy magazine covers and coffee table books. Yet in the era of climate change, retrofit and adaptive reuse projects are becoming an important part of architectural practice because they avoid energy-intensive demolition and reconstruction. In cities with large, aging building stocks, reuse and renovation are essential to meeting climate goals while also preserving historic character and culture.
Several cities around the globe are beginning to tackle this less glamorous design challenge. London, which projects that 80% of its current building stock will exist in 2050, has several programs in place to encourage retrofits of existing homes and public buildings. These programs contribute to the city’s efforts to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 60% by 2025. Similarly, New York City hopes to achieve an 80% reduction in emissions by 2050. The report from New York’s Buildings Technical Working Group reinforces the importance of retrofitting, projecting that over 90% of the city’s building stock in the year 2050 already exists today. Since the buildings in New York account for almost three-quarters of the city’s greenhouse gas emissions, improving the energy performance of existing buildings is imperative to reaching the 80×50 goals.
“…over 90% of the city’s building stock in the 2050 already exists today.”
Redevelop vs. Retrofit
But if these buildings are such poor performers, why not just tear them down and build newer, better ones? The choice between redevelopment versus retrofitting is actually quite nuanced. Obviously, there are some realistic constraints: we cannot feasibly rebuild a vast majority of New York or London in a few decades, nor do we want to destroy so many historic buildings. Secondly, demolishing and reconstructing buildings has a large greenhouse gas footprint, requiring a lot of energy to tear down the old structure and then produce, refine, and transport raw materials and assemble the new building. In many cases, the impacts of this process outweigh the reduced operational energy use of the new building, as Julie Nelson (partner at BKSK) discusses in this post about the retrofits to the UN Headquarters. However, in some cases, the building is such a poor performer that even deep retrofits cannot improve energy savings enough to justify preserving the building versus replacing it, as Terrapin Bright Green found in their analysis of a prototypical Manhattan midcentury office building. Overall, the results from the Technical Working Group report demonstrate how we must address existing building stock – and in most cases likely retrofit or reuse – to reach climate goals.
Demolition and new construction is an energy-intensive process.
The Technical Working Group report analyzed the energy use of the city’s existing buildings and identified energy conservation measures that would reduce the building-based emissions by 33%. Some of the measures target low-hanging fruit, like improving burner controls for boilers, but the report finds that deeper retrofits of mid and large-sized buildings will be necessary to meet greenhouse gas reduction goals. These findings throw down the gauntlet for building owners and architects: how can we effectively retrofit aging buildings to achieve significant energy savings without breaking the bank? Luckily in New York, there is precedent for deep energy retrofits: the Empire State Building underwent retrofits that reduced energy use by over 38% and save over $4.4 million per year and retrofits to the U.N. Headquarters building are projected to cut energy use by 50%.
“These findings throw down the gauntlet for building owners and architects: how can we effectively retrofit aging buildings to achieve significant energy savings without breaking the bank?”
Energy retrofits to the Empire State Building reportedly save over $4.4 million per year.
Renovated = Revitalized
Buildings do not need to be architectural icons to merit extensive retrofits: BKSK has designed several preservation and adaptive reuse projects with improved energy and environmental performance for within smaller developments. 2 Lafayette Street, a renovation of seven floors of the historic Court Square Building, achieved a LEED Gold certification. The team leveraged the necessary retrofitting of the building to create a more pleasant working environment. The existing space was drafty, so the team researched wall, ventilation, and window options. Contrary to expectations, they discovered that keeping the existing windows was actually the best option in terms of return on investment. Instead, the team added interior insulation, new seals, and splays around the windows to improve daylighting. These passive design features along with a demand control ventilation system vastly improved the energy performance and comfort of the offices. Other new features like a colorful central stair and better window shading helped modernize the space. This project demonstrates how retrofitting can be an opportunity to not only save on energy and operational costs but create high-quality, desirable spaces. (Explore more adaptive reuse/renovation projects by BKSK here).
View of the renovated space at 2 Lafayette in Court Square.
“Retrofitting can be an opportunity to not only save on energy and operational costs but create high-quality, desirable spaces.”
Although working on existing buildings may not appear like the most alluring branch of architectural practice, achieving ambitious climate goals like New York City’s 80×50 initiative will require clever retrofit and adaptive reuse solutions – just the sort of creative problem solving that architects are well-suited for. Achieving high energy performance while preserving or enhancing the existing building is no small feat. Energy conservation measures and the quality of spaces need to be balanced against the preservation of existing landmarks and financial costs. But these constraints establish opportunities for design solutions that celebrate the historic character of the city, improve quality of life, and reduce environmental impact. Perhaps future architects will be most celebrated for their abilities to skillfully intervene in existing buildings.
photos by upsplash users: Anthony Delanoix, Tom Barrett, Tua Nguy N Minh, Todd Quackenbush. 2 Lafayette by Raimund Koch and BKSK.