Upgrade existing buildings and design new buildings to maximize energy efficiency and greatly reduce operational and embodied carbon emissions.
Buildings are responsible for nearly 40 percent of global emissions, with 28 percent of that consisting of ongoing operational emissions. Any transition to a low- or zero-carbon built environment must include a plan for the existing buildings. Some estimates suggest that up to 80 percent of all buildings in 2030 will require retrofits to improve their energy efficiency. Retrofits typically refer to upgrades in heating, cooling, insulation, windows, lighting, and a switch to renewable energy. As it stands, annual energy retrofit rates in buildings are currently less than 1 percent in most countries. The untapped potential in retrofitting, upgrading, and renovating existing buildings is tremendous. Not only do we have a chance at eliminating 28 percent of global emissions, but we also have the opportunity to save billions of dollars for building and homeowners, reduce the cost burden of utilities for low-income families, and also create more well-paid jobs than any other energy sector.
Learn more about building retrofits. Although many of us spend most of our lives in buildings, few of us are informed about their long-term energy performance or embodied carbon. Find out more about your building or home. Some questions you can consider are: What is your monthly energy consumption (heating, cooling, appliances)? What kind of appliances do you have? What kind of energy mix does your electricity grid run on? You can also spend some time learning about building retrofits and their benefits. Refer to resources in the Learn section below.
Contact your landlord or property manager to discuss a building retrofit. If you are renting a property to live or work in, consider contacting your landlord or property manager to speak with them about the possibilities of undertaking a retrofit. If you are about to sign a new lease, consider asking your landlord about the current energy efficiency of the property. Here are some questions that can guide a conversation.
Speak up about the importance of upgrading buildings. Many people are not aware of the emissions impact that our buildings have. Start conversations with friends and neighbors about their home and office energy consumption. Write an op-ed in the newspaper or post on social media about what you’ve learned about where you live or work.
Form a citizens’ group. If you are a renter or are someone who does not have access to capital or tenure to see through a retrofit yourself, consider forming a citizens’ group with other concerned individuals in your community. As a group, you can put forward a stronger message to local officials about implementing policies that support a community-wide retrofit project.
- The Holland Climate Collaborative is one example of a community collective that lobbies their citizen council for investments in energy efficiency and the transition to renewable-energy grids.
Replace gas stoves with induction stovetops. Induction stoves use electromagnetic energy to heat pots and pans directly instead of gas and electric cooktops which heat indirectly using either a burner or a heating element. Induction stoves are more energy efficient (nearly 20-50% more) and provide just as much versatility with cooking, while being faster, safe, and cleaner than gas or electric options. When you buy an induction stove, all you have to do is plug it in and use suitable pots and pans. The cost of induction stoves has dropped in recent years and is often comparable to gas ranges. You can use this guide to consider which features are best suited for your needs.
Purchase energy-efficient appliances. If you are moving into a new home or simply replacing old appliances, consider researching the most energy efficient appliances. Not only will you be avoiding greenhouse gas emissions, you will also be saving on water and electricity while enhancing your quality of life. Some estimates suggest that the typical household can save 25 percent of its utility bills with energy-efficiency measures. Pay attention to the energy guide label and ask about any energy-efficient offers on appliances you buy. This guide by eartheasy.com walks you through appliance-specific considerations, including refrigerators, stoves, washing machines, and dishwashers.
Consider a career in energy services, including advising, auditing, or retrofitting. Energy jobs are often associated with people who work in coal mines, oil refineries, or in the gas sector. However, a worldwide determination to upgrade buildings will require workers and experts who are up to the task. Investments in retrofits around the world will require millions of well-paying and long-term jobs in architecture, engineering, building operations, contracting, and auditing.
- The Green Buildings Career Map explores fifty-five jobs and opportunities in the green buildings and energy efficiency industry. Click on any dot to find out more about the education, training, and skills required, as well as salary ranges and advancement routes.
Building and Homeowners
Complete an energy audit of your home or building. A home energy audit is an evaluation of the current energy use in your home. This typically takes between two and four hours, depending on the size and age of your building. These evaluations are often offered by local gas and electric companies at a discounted price. In some countries they are subsidized by the government because they recognize the public benefits of reduced emissions and the good jobs that result from retrofitting.
Retrofit your home or building. While the company you entrust with the retrofit will be best able to advise you based on your property, here are a few areas you can consider and ask them about:
- Shift to heat pumps. Many buildings rely on boilers using heating oil or natural gas to heat and large air-conditioning units to cool the premises. Heat pumps, whether for single-family homes, condominiums, apartments, or commercial buildings, are an energy-efficient solution (nearly 50 percent more efficient) to replace old heating and cooling technologies. Heat pumps are essentially reverse air conditioners. They convert cool air to hot air, and in the summer can do the opposite and cool the air. Like air conditioners, they use external power to compress a refrigerant. See Heat Pumps Nexus for more.
- Ensure proper insulation in roofs, attics, windows, and walls. A carbon retrofit will aim to make your home airtight by sealing any gaps through which air can enter or escape. This involves sealing windows, doors, attics, and walls. In the Netherlands, companies such as Energiesprong have developed prefabricated building facades that combine fire-resistant expanded polystyrene with trapped air to protect the building from cold drafts that the old brick walls would allow in.
- Install efficient windows. Improving window efficiency may be one of the most cost-effective options to retrofit your property. You can check for air leaks through a manual inspection or a pressurization test. Based on the results, you can weatherstrip windows, add storm windows or panels, install dynamic glass, or add exterior shading such as blinds.
- Switch to LED lighting. Swap out any incandescent and compact fluorescent bulbs for LEDs, which consume 50 to 90 percent less energy. You can even consider installing LED bulbs with occupancy sensors or voice sensors to reduce any unwanted energy consumption.
- Install a smart thermostat. If you live in a home with central heating and cooling, consider installing a smart thermostat that is connected to sensors and automates temperature control by memorizing your choices and routines. Not only will this result in more comfortable temperature control, but also in cost savings as a result of greater energy efficiency.
Install or switch to renewable energy. Consider installing a rooftop solar system or a residential wind turbine, or using a hybrid renewable energy system to cover your building’s energy needs. You can install solar on rooftops as long as there is an area that is not covered by shadows from trees or other buildings. By reducing your home’s energy demand through other retrofits, you will likely require a smaller renewable energy system than for your current needs. If you are unable to install renewable energy on-site either due to cost or space constraints, switch to an energy provider with 100% renewable electricity, or a utility with a larger renewable energy mix.
Research any government incentives or subsidies. Governments around the world are recognizing the public benefit of encouraging individuals to retrofit and upgrade their buildings and homes. Before you commit to a plan, make sure to research any incentives, rebates, or subsidies that are offered by your local or state government.
- If you live in Canada or the United States, you can check this Rebate Finder to find plans near you.
- This Database of State Incentives for Renewables and Efficiency might also be helpful for individuals in the United States.
- In Germany, the KfW Bank provides incentives for energy-efficient construction and refurbishment of homes.
- The Holland Home Energy Retrofit Program provides financial incentives to homeowners making home improvements in order to reduce energy use.
- This guide presents funding opportunities to those living in London, England.
- This Building Retrofit Energy Efficiency Finance (BREEF) Scheme is for building retrofit costs in Singapore.
- The Seoul city government ran a Building Retrofit Program that provided loan support to those who installed energy-saving retrofits in buildings.
Invest in retrofitting businesses. Research suggests that financing is a serious obstacle for energy-efficiency projects under $250,000, with only 33 percent of them able to access financing. Forward-thinking leaders and investors play an important role in providing financing options that make it easier to cut energy waste in small buildings:
- BlocPower supports midsize buildings and apartments in low-income neighborhoods in Brooklyn and other cities in the United States by financing their retrofits. These investments are paid back by savings in the residents’ utility bills.
- Kilowatt Financial obtained a $100 million loan from Citigroup that it used to finance energy-efficiency projects for U.S. homeowners. Homeowners can qualify for loans up to $30,000, which run for ten to twelve years, for home improvements that would include upgrading windows, insulation, and appliances.
- MEETS is an accelerator coalition in Seattle that has tackled the lack of incentives that building stakeholders (tenants, owners, and utility services) have to increase energy efficiency in buildings. MEETS uses income from utilities to finance energy efficiency retrofits in tenant-occupied buildings, by bringing many stakeholders involved in retrofits to enter into an agreement with one another. For more information on the project you can watch this video.
- KredEx provides financial services such as loans and grants to homeowners, apartment associations, and even local governments for renovations and retrofits that facilitate energy efficiency and the adoption of renewable energy.
- Joule Assets facilitates financing for energy-efficiency and renewables projects in Europe and the UK. They help small and medium energy service companies (ESCos), and engineering and construction companies access project investment by providing advisory work.
Retrofit schools, hospitals, and other government owned buildings. Public buildings are also significant sites of energy consumption. In the United States, K–12 schools consume about 8 percent of all energy used in commercial buildings. Many schools and hospitals have started retrofitting their infrastructure with zero emissions in mind. This involves installing more solar panels, replacing old heating and cooling systems, installing heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning (HVAC) systems, and transitioning to on-site renewable options.
- In Arkansas, a school district installed more than 1,500 solar panels that now generates about half of the district’s electricity. Before installations, the district spent over half a million dollars on utilities annually. These savings are directly transferred to teacher’s salaries.
- Here is a tool kit developed by the Sierra Club to transition to “100 % Clean Energy School Districts.”
- In China, Hospitals use twice as much energy as other public institutions and commercial buildings. Over 54 percent of hospitals were built before 2005, when China introduced its energy-efficiency standards for public buildings. A collaboration between the Chinese and German governments resulted in recommendations to retrofit twelve hospitals in five cities. Four hospitals have implemented the measures, which resulted in a 27 percent reduction in natural gas and electricity consumption.
Energy Service Companies
Provide free or discounted energy audits. Many retrofitting companies also provide in-house energy audit services for free or at a discounted rate in large part to incentivize building owners and homeowners to sign on for a larger retrofitting contract with their company . Since many owners may not be aware of the benefits of a building retrofit, the energy audit may be an opportunity for salespeople from your company to provide more information about the economic and environmental benefits.
Be accessible to low-income households. Low-income households face specific economic barriers when accessing energy efficiency upgrading services. In some countries, there are energy-efficiency policies that are specifically targeted to low-income households. By providing in-house financial advising services, you can inform households on what incentives or loans they can access to use your services.
Provide prefabricated retrofits where possible. Prefabricated retrofit technologies are still fairly new technologies, emerging primarily in the Netherlands and the United States. Many argue that creating a more integrated and standardized approach to conducting zero-energy retrofits can not only bring down manufacturing and installation costs, but also scale up the number of retrofits that are taking place in a year. If you are not yet using prefabricated solutions, explore existing options to learn if they may apply to your clients.
- This report by the Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI) catalogues the existing technologies available and the steps needed to enable large-scale, industrialized retrofits.
Share best practices with industry and peers. The energy-efficient buildings landscape is rapidly changing and building relationships with other industry peers can be essential in growing your business and scaling up retrofits around the world. If you are not already part of one, consider joining an industry coalition to better learn and share energy-efficiency building technologies and methods. You can also provide support to existing contractors to onboard them into the world of energy efficiency upgrades. Here is a directory of Green Building Councils around the world.
Architects and Contractors
Publicly commit to the 2030 Challenge. Architect Edward Mazria created the 2030 Challenge in 2006 with the goal of ensuring that all buildings and major renovations be carbon neutral by 2030. He defines carbon neutral buildings as those that use no more energy than they create on-site, or renewable energy that they purchase off-site, not exceeding 20 percent of the total energy consumption. As an architect or building contractor, you can commit to the 2030 Challenge by ensuring that existing building areas equivalent to the area of any new developments, shall be renovated annually to meet a fossil fuel, GHG-emitting, energy-consumption performance standard of 70 percent of the regional (or national) average for the building type. This fossil-fuel reduction standard shall be increased incrementally every five years to have carbon-neutral operations and buildings by 2030. The following steps can be undertaken to make this a reality:
Establish an energy use intensity (EUI) baseline. The Zero Tool was developed for building sector professionals who have adopted the 2030 Challenge. The tool compares a building’s design or existing EUI with similar building types and helps set targets. You can learn more about how to use the tool here.
Apply passive design strategies and emerging technology. To achieve maximum energy efficiency, your firm can use a range of design strategies that are best suited to your property portfolios. The 2030 Palette outlines some ideas to offer inspiration. Additionally, energy-efficient technology systems such as efficient HVAC systems, LED lighting, smart glass, and smart thermostats may be options to consider for your building.
Join the 2030 Commitment. If you are living and working in the United States, the American Institute of Architects (AIA) has created the 2030 Commitment Program to assist architects in prioritizing energy performance and carbon-neutral buildings. Joining the Commitment gives you access to the Design Data Exchange (DDx), a national framework created by the AIA that provides a standardized format for measuring progress. The framework allows you to pinpoint best practices and anonymously compare project performance across firms.
Stay up to date about new high-performance building knowledge. The zero-carbon-buildings landscape is rapidly changing, and architects and builders play an integral role in staying informed about new technologies and emerging innovations. There are several resources that are available to stay in the loop:
- 2030 Palette is a database of sustainable design principles, strategies, and tools that are applicable all the way from city scales to individual sites and buildings.
- CarbonPositive RESET! was a Global Teach-In event focused on the actions necessary to meet the Paris climate agreement goals. All recordings from the event are available in English, Spanish, and Mandarin and are freely available to all.
- The AIA+2030 Certificate Program is a ten-course online series that seeks to provide inspiration to architects who want to meet the 2030 Challenge. It outlines approaches to construction through design strategies and efficient technologies and systems, and contains renewable-energy resources.
Real Estate Management Companies/Property Developers
Commit to net zero carbon buildings. Publicly commit to Net Zero Carbon Buildings by signing the international agreement created by the World Green Buildings Council. The commitment calls for all assets to reach net-zero carbon in operation by 2030 at the latest. You can find further resources and guidance on the topic here.
Commission energy audits of the properties in your portfolio. Hire an energy audit firm to assess your entire portfolio and disclose the audited energy consumption, alongside your Scope 1 and 2 greenhouse gas emissions through annual reporting.
Take action based on an energy efficiency benchmark. Energy efficiency is a fundamental requirement of reaching net-zero carbon for buildings. There are several energy-efficiency benchmarks that you can select from. You can look to third-party green building certification schemes that are relevant to your local codes (e.g., ILFI, BREEAM, DGNB, Green Star, HQE, LEED, Zero Code). Contact your local Green Building Council to find more information.
Procure renewable energy. Investigate whether your property’s energy demands can be met through on-site renewables. If only partially possible, incorporate measures that will help decarbonize the grid, such as incorporating peak demand reduction and battery storage technologies. If none of these options are feasible, explore off-site renewable generation options in your city.
Use carbon onsets as a last resort. Even after retrofitting existing buildings to their highest energy efficiency and running on renewable energy, there still may be residual emissions in existing buildings. Onsets are carbon credits that create a net reduction in greenhouse gas emissions that can help address this emissions gap. Organizations such as Gold Standard, Carbon Fund, and NativeEnergy provide verified onsets via their financial support of projects that improve carbon levels in the soil through reforestation and regenerative agriculture.
Advocate for greater industry action. Encourage other players in the industry to upgrade their buildings to high energy-efficiency standards by offering lessons in retrofits and renewable installation.
Design a nation or citywide retrofitting program. Governments play an integral role in creating a road map for how to reduce emissions in the building sector, especially those related to energy efficiency. Because retrofits require a large investment, governments play an essential role in designing incentives for individuals, investors, and businesses to accelerate the retrofitting revolution. As a part of this program, consider providing an up-to-date list of contractors that provide retrofitting services, including those who install newer heating and cooling technologies. Several governments, at city, federal, or regional levels, have already started designing such programs:
- The European Union is drafting a proposal that would require all member states to put in place measures to renovate 3 percent of buildings owned and occupied by public bodies each year. The EU is using its 800 billion euro COVID-19 economic recovery fund to launch a wave of green renovations.
- Seoul (South Korea) undertook its Building Retrofit Program in 2014 by partnering with building owners and energy-conservation companies to improve wall insulation, insert high-efficiency heating/cooling devices, and LED lights.
- The United Kingdom is in the process of debating a National Retrofit Strategy put forth by the Construction Leadership Council, which would provide a twenty-year blueprint to transform the nation’s housing stock.
- Community Retrofit NYC is a city agency set up specifically to provide educational, engineering, financial, and construction management advisory services to building owners, building operators, and community residents to help simplify the energy- and water-efficiency retrofit process.
Implement carbon reduction standards in existing buildings. Cities can set minimum energy performance requirements for existing buildings, making upgrading an attractive option for building owners, or can even stop the rental of highly inefficient buildings.
Support education and reskilling programs around energy efficiency. The energy-efficiency sector is among the largest employers across all energy sectors in the United States. Approximately 76,000 new positions are being created each year. To meet this growing demand, workers need to be provided with proper training and educational opportunities. Governments can help set up training institutes, provide support to expand existing programs, and offer incentives for workers who would like to reskill themselves as contractors, builders, engineers, and architects.
- In Manchester (United Kingdom), Mayor Andy Burnham has committed £1.1 million of funding to train 1,140 people in retrofitting at the new Retrofit Skills Hub.
Use financial tools to attract private sector investment. Governments can play an integral role in creating an environment of confidence to support greater private-sector investment. This may involve derisking projects, providing credit risk protections, and providing project development standards for upcoming pilots.
- The European Investment Bank (EIB) has approved the creation of a new finance tool that aims to make investments in energy-efficiency projects in residential buildings more attractive to private investors.
Fannie Mae is a U.S. home mortgage company that has launched $95 billion in “green bonds” to reduce building energy inefficiencies. However, investigation shows that the bonds are not resulting in significant decarbonization, and most buildings have seen identical energy scores despite investments due to Fannie Mae’s low standards for what constitutes a “green building.” The CEO of the company is Hugh R. Frater. His email is email@example.com.
Gas utilities, with the help of industry trade groups, have been successfully lobbying lawmakers for years for legislation that prevents the outlawing of gas infrastructure in cities.
- The American Gas Association (AGA) has been arguing that using natural gas is compatible with addressing climate change, despite scientific evidence to the contrary. Karen A. Harbert is the president and CEO. She can be contacted as firstname.lastname@example.org or at (202) 824-7000 (headquarters).
- The American Public Gas Association has been paying Instagram influencers to promote gas stoves as far better for cooking. John Leary is the chair of the board of directors. You can contact him at email@example.com.
- CBE Strategic was hired by Puget Sound Energy to develop an action plan stopping local governments from enacting restrictions on gas. Tim Ceis, Ryan Bayne, and Emilie East are partners at the firm. While they do not list emails on their website, you can contact the firm through their website here.
- Southern California Edison has been known for lobbying the state government, spending nearly $679,000 in 2019. Kevin M. Payne is the CEO and President. You can contact their customer support by phone only at 1-800-655-4555.
- Sempra Energy has been flagged by its own shareholders as a company that practices anti-climate lobbying in California. The CEO is Jeffrey W. Martin. You can contact him at (619) 696 2000 (headquarters) or email the company at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Energy Service Companies
Project developers that provide comprehensive services from development, designing, building, and financing projects that save energy and reduce costs.
BlocPower (United States)
Realize by RMI (United States)
INNOVATE (European Union)
People Powered Retrofit (United Kingdom)
YellowTin (California, United States)
Biskit Controls (UK): Removing air bubbles from water to make the transfer of heat from boilers to radiators more efficient.
Amp X (UK): Creating a digital energy assistant to automatically schedule home energy usage for when energy is cleanest and cheapest.
AirEx (UK): Adjusting the insulation in buildings using artificial intelligence and sensors to control the porosity of bricks.
Green Builders (Maryland, United States)
Real Estate Management and Property Groups
Argent Services LLP (UK)
Charter Hall (Australia)
City Developments Limited (Singapore)
Grainger PLC (UK)
GPT Group (Australia)
Hudson Pacific Properties (U.S. and Canada)
Kilroy Realty Corporation (North America)
Lendlease (Australia and Europe)
OP Real Estate Management (Finland)
The Crown Estate (UK)
Tritax Big Box (UK)
Cities undertaking large-scale retrofits
Ithaca (New York)
New York (New York)
What Is Deep Retrofitting and Why Is It Important? (United Kingdom)
Seven Community Housing Building Retrofits (Toronto, Canada)
Healthy Buildings by Dr. Joseph Allen
7 Ways to Retrofit Buildings for Energy Efficiency by Bloomberg
Retrofit Technologies by the City of Melbourne
Retrofit Tips and Advice by the City of Melbourne
Accelerating Building Efficiency by the WRI
Low Energy Buildings (across the UK)
Project RenoBooster (Vienna, Austria)
48 Public Buildings (Ljubljana, Slovenia)
Public Housing Estate (Bordeaux, France)
The Madrid Recupera Plan (Madrid, Spain)
1200 Buildings Case Studies (Melbourne, Australia)
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