Carbon Positive: Modernization and Retrofit

Over the past few years, the architecture profession has taken a turn, significantly enhancing its commitments and contributions in the face of the climate crisis. Since the Glasgow Climate Change Conference in November, the importance of eliminating greenhouse gas pollution from the construction sector has been recognized more broadly in industry, finance and government both in the United States and globally. The search for principles, practices, policies and programs that accelerate the decarbonization of buildings and cities has been intensified.

The Building Energy Codes of 2021 require high-performance design on many levels. Cities across the US – including New York and San Jose, California – are requiring all new buildings to not use on-site fossil fuels – gas, oil or propane – and to be powered by 100% on-site or off-site renewable energy, often in line with With zero code and 2021 International Energy Conservation Code Annex CC. Examples of architecture achieving the highest level of design and performance can be found in every issue of this magazine and in the design award programs for local American Institute of Architects chapters.

The Edith Green-Wendell Wyatt Federal Building in Portland, Ore.  , by SERA Architects and Cutler Anderson Architects, is the 2014 COTE Award winner which is an example of high performance in renovation and retrofitting.
Nick Leehawks
The Edith Green-Wendell Wyatt Federal Building in Portland, Ore. , by SERA Architects and Cutler Anderson Architects, is the 2014 COTE Award winner which is an example of high performance in renovation and retrofitting.

However, something very important is often overlooked by our profession: eliminating greenhouse gas emissions from existing buildings. Even if every new building designed from today onwards meets the standards for zero-carbon operations, buildings and cities will continue to emit more carbon pollution than industry, agriculture or transportation. To reach zero emissions, we must eliminate the existing carbon footprint of the construction sector and transform the performance of existing buildings.

As cities across the country and the world assess their decarbonization challenges, retrofitting existing buildings is beginning to gain the attention it deserves. Performance standards goals for existing buildings are being adopted as a core program in citywide efforts to meet climate commitments. A growing list of cities across the United States have already passed BPS laws; Washington, D.C., for example, began revealing its current building energy performance in 2019 and carried out its first round of BPS in 2021.

The AIA has been promoting and supporting building modification as a climate measure for nearly a decade. In particular, in 2013, the AIA published Deep Energy Retrofits, An Emerging Opportunity; In 2019, Renovation, Retrofit, and Reuse: Revealing the Hidden Value in America’s Existing Building Inventory; An upcoming publication is titled “A Guide to Building Reuse Practices to Support Climate Action”.

There is no path to a zero-emissions building sector without excluding emissions from the 325 billion square feet of existing buildings in America.

While the economic recovery from the Great Recession has continued over the past decade, contrary to expectations, the rate of architectural billing for retrofitting work has remained high. Many architectural firms face the financial opportunity in the retrofitting business.

As an architect who has spent most of my career rehabilitating and adding to existing buildings, I speak with first-hand experience on this topic. The importance of removing carbon from existing buildings is critical.

There is no path to a zero-emissions building sector without excluding emissions from the 325 billion square feet of existing buildings in America. But the message I most want to convey is how rewarding the design challenge is in renovating and transforming existing buildings.

Facing the constraints of existing buildings, discovering design solutions that respond creatively to their character, and comprehensively integrating the new with the old produce an unparalleled richness of the space. Try it. you’ll love it.

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