Retrofitting Buildings For Low Carbon Emissions – 10 Key Methods

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Conservationists and property specialists universally agree that beyond extreme examples retrofitting existing buildings is more cost efficient than new construction projects. With the timeline to reach net zero in place, retrofitting to combat embodied carbon is a thriving market with multiple areas of growth and expansion for landlords and property developers.

Defining Retrofitting

Retrofitting buildings is the incorporation and installation of systems that encourage energy efficiency and low consumption within existing properties. The measures taken can be as simple as the replacement of a building’s bulbs with eco-efficient lighting, all the way to bespoke HVAC; controlled from a central hub or terminal.

Why Do We Need To Retrofit Buildings?

Eighty percent of buildings currently standing will still be in use by 2050. This makes the technologically impressive feats of modern construction and design somewhat irrelevant given that a huge quantity of emissions will continue to stem from existing properties embodied carbon despite how energy conscious new builds might be. Existing landlords and property developments must embrace retrofitting principles of reuse and refurbishment for Net Zero to be a possibility.

What Are The Main Benefits Of Retrofitting A Property?

Ignoring the considerable financial benefits of retrofitting as an industry, achieving net zero is improbable without addressing existing buildings emissions and decreasing them to acceptable levels. The increased global push for sustainability means the market will only grow exponentially as these targets are met. Any business that doesn’t follow industry trends will be left behind.

How Are Buildings Retrofitted For Sustainability?

The housing market can reuse systems and ideas repeatedly with limited tailoring, but commercial sectors need to take larger building considerations one project at a time. Retrofitting property development can employ pragmatism and retrofit a property with considerations for its eco-viability at the forefront, or embrace architectural design for an aesthetically pleasing end result.


The Empire State Building, constructed in 1931, was given a green retrofit in 2009. The entire underground chiller plant was rebuilt with as much of the original materials as possible, each window was given an advanced insulatory coating, the lifts were reworked with regenerative braking and the amount saved per year ($4MIllion) has already surpassed the original outlay of costs ($39Million). Discussing the finished project in Time, Anthony Malkin of the Empire State Realty Trust suggested that regarding retrofitting; “there’s no silver bullet, it’s silver buckshot. It’s lots of different pieces that work together.”

10 Different Methods For Retrofitting Buildings:

1: Install A Green Roof

Perhaps the most immediately visible change to an existing property is a green roof.

Green roofs are eco-friendly roofing systems covered in vegetational growth such as grass, plants, flowers, bushes and other assorted greenery. 

Green roofs offer numerous benefits. A green roof will reduce storm water runoff, lower your building’s cooling/heating related energy demands, as well as reducing the urban heat island effect the building creates. There are a growing number of green roof systems, with the idea only continuing to grow in popularity due to the lightweight, low cost, low maintenance building sustainability solutions a green roof offers.

Cost – ££

Payback – Immediate

2: Upgraded Lighting

Old style light fittings such as  halogen bulbs and fluorescent tubes can be changed to longer lasting and energy efficient LEDs.

Cost – £

Payback – Immediate

3: Elevator Controls

Using elevator lockout systems to balance the footfall of people in buildings versus the number of elevators available at off-peak and key times will increase energy savings and operational use. 

Cost – ££

Payback – 1-2 Years then ongoing

4: Optimised Energy Efficiency:

A building’s energy use, and the management of it, is the most obvious factor to consider. Lighting, ventilation, heating and the like account for 60-75% of a commercial building’s primary energy use. Adjusting these existing settings according to a building’s occupancy rate reduces energy use. A state-of-the-art BEMS installed into an existing building will revolutionise energy management, save on running costs and the environmental impact of emissions.

Cost – £££

Payback 3-4 – Years (Max) then ongoing

5: Water Efficiency:

Cooling towers are amongst the largest sources of water consumption  in commercial and industrial buildings. Retrofitting must take water efficiency into account and should monitor and optimise the operation of any cooling towers to maximise cost savings while minimising waste and emissions. 

Cost – £££

Payback – 3-4 Years (Max) then ongoing

6: Up To Date HVAC Reports By Continuous Commissioning:

Scheduling performance checks for HVAC equipment doesn’t mean the HVAC system actually works well. Replacing the internal workings (pumps, fans, motors etc.) make any building’s HVAC equipment run more efficiently.

Continuous commissioning guarantees your HVAC equipment runs at its highest possible peak performance and also extends the life of a building’s HVAC hardware. Investing in real time, daily data tracking to look for anomalies that will reduce waste while increasing efficiency.

Cost – £££

Payback – 3-4 Years (Max) then ongoing

7: Operations and Maintenance Optimization:

Retrofitting a building’s design to focus on sustainability is only the first step. The retrofitting must be operated and maintained properly and responsibly after project completion. Operations and maintenance personnel represent the key to actually sustaining a building. A lack of visibility in operational data is a major deterrent in the success of green retrofitting practices. If it seems off putting, consider that preventative maintenance is more cost efficient than emergency repairs being carried out as needed.

Cost – ££

Payback – 3-4 Years (Max) then ongoing

8: Use Load Curtailment Programs to Reduce Energy and Economic Consumption:

Buildings might differ from one another, but they don’t exist in isolation. Your green initiatives will make a serious difference if they extend beyond a single building. Ecologically savvy building owners can participate in demand response or load curtailment programs, where electricity usage is reduced for brief periods, as needed, to help during peak demand periods while the power grid is at maximum usage. Participants in load curtailment programs should be able to receive significant payments for on demand load shedding from their local authorities.

Cost – ££

Payback – 3-4 Years (Max) then ongoing

9: Space Utilization Management:

Occupancy data is a critically underused asset that assesses the utilization of various rooms and spaces to determine how an overall space can be redesigned/redistributed amongst the occupants. Sustainable practices based around re-commissioning of existing space ensures efficient results.

Cost – £

Payback – Immediate

10: Install a Virtual Building Automation System

Many existing buildings don’t have an existing BAS. Buildings that do might face expensive retrofitting paths if its functionality is obsolete. The ongoing benefits outweigh the costs however, as a virtually run BAS can help massively  in the ongoing management of the previously mentioned ideas and approaches.

Cost – ££

Payback – 2-3 Years (Max) then ongoing

Final Thoughts

These are just some of the key retrofitting methods for lowering a building’s carbon emissions. There are many more, and as the industry embraces retrofitting the technology and the idea pool available are sure to increase and provide us with many pathways to a sustainable future. Every conservation programme that can be envisioned, will itself be amplified as building occupants themselves adopt green initiatives led by the retrofitting property development industry.

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