The Urgent Need for Retrofitting in the U.S.: Reducing CO2 Emissions from the Built Environment

Constructing new buildings allows general contractors and architects to incorporate sustainable elements and practices. However, it can take between 10 and 80 years for a new, energy-efficient building to overcome the negative climate change impacts created during the construction process.

Additionally, it is estimated that from 2020 to 2060, the world will add about 2.6 trillion ft2 of new floor area to the global building stock – the equivalent of adding an entire New York City to the world, every month, for 40 years.

The built environment is currently responsible for about 42% of annual global CO2 emissions. This means it is essential that steps are taken to decarbonize the built environment.

To do this, the industry must pivot to more sustainable building solutions that cater to existing building stock, such as retrofits.

Retrofitting refers to the deep renovation of existing buildings with new technologies and high energy efficiency measures to reduce their energy consumption and remove fossil-fuel reliant systems in order to make them compatible with a zero-carbon built environment.

To put it simply, upgrading existing buildings, rather than building from scratch, can decarbonize the global economy, create job opportunities, and raise living standards across the board.

Reducing carbon emissions

The Fifth National Climate Assessment finds that the impacts of weather extremes exacerbated by climate change are affecting the U.S. in many ways, including changing rain patterns, rising sea levels, oceans becoming more acidic, and the increased frequency and intensity of extreme weather.

According to this report, U.S. average temperature has increased by 1.3°F to 1.9°F since 1895, and most of this increase has occurred since 1970. Temperatures are projected to rise another 2°F to 4°F in most areas of the United States over the next few decades.

The human made carbon emissions that are fueling climate change demonstrate the urgency of stepping up retrofit projects in the U.S. to reduce these emissions.

One of the biggest impacts of retrofit projects is reducing much of the embodied carbon emissions (the carbon emissions released during the lifecycle of building materials) that are generated by the construction of new buildings. Data from the Institute for Market Transformation revealed that retrofitting buildings can save 50-75% of a building’s embodied carbon.

Retrofits in the U.S.

According to 3Keel Group’s and Kingspan’s new report, Global Retrofit Index Interim Report: Assessing progress on the path to net zero, the nation’s building stock is “far off track for reaching net zero by 2050, and without major intervention is unlikely to align with such a trajectory in the coming years.”

Research found that reductions in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from buildings are reversing in the U.S. Emissions from the U.S. built environment have increased by 3% in the last decade – a trend that looks set to continue. This means that over the next 20 years, the U.S. must reduce building emissions by an additional 73% to align with the country’s net zero scenario.

According to the research, there are five key elements central to delivering a successful retrofitting framework:

  • Setting net zero building performance standards
  • Developing a national retrofit plan
  • Providing financial incentives and support
  • Upskilling the workface and scaling the supply chain
  • Promoting best practice and data transparency

There are a few barriers preventing the widespread adoption of retrofitting. According to the report, an inadequately sized and skilled workforce, limited awareness among citizens and building owners, and insufficient private investments create challenges in retrofit projects in the U.S.

The public and private sectors must work together to get the U.S. back on track.

The good news is that the U.S.’s landmark policy package, the Inflation Reduction Act, was signed into law earlier this year. This policy package included allocation of roughly $9 billion to consumer home energy rebate programs to electrify home appliances and perform energy efficient retrofits, with a focus on low-income consumers.

Successful retrofits strategies

Upgrading the building envelope during the retrofit process is a key strategy for decreasing operational carbon and improving energy efficiency. High performance building envelope solutions like insulated metal panels (IMPs) improve a building’s energy performance by preventing heat transfer and energy loss.

One recent example was the renovation of the mixed-use building at 808 Memorial Drive located in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

This project consisted of residential and commercial units needing renovation to meet high standards of energy efficiency and sustainability. To meet these standards, architects selected IMPs with high thermal performance.

IMPs offer excellent insulation properties, which help to reduce the amount of energy needed to heat and cool a building. This helps to reduce the building's carbon footprint and operating costs. The panels are also designed to be airtight, helping to reduce air leakage and improve energy efficiency.

The U.S. has the knowledge, resources and technology to enact lasting change and work toward net zero goals. Retrofitting existing buildings can help meet climate targets in the built environment for years to come.

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Term of the Day

Carbon Dioxide Equivalent (CO2e) is a method to compare various greenhouse gases based on their global warming potential. One metric ton of a greenhouse gas is converted to the equivalent number of metric tons of CO2 emissions with the same global warming potential.

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