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15 Apr 2024

Attaining Net Zero: Capitalizing on Commercial Retrofit Prospects

Attaining Net Zero: Capitalizing on Commercial Retrofit Prospects

5 April 2024

Positioned at the edge of a climatic emergency, the imperative embrace retrofitting is more critical than ever. Armed with fresh approaches we can make a decisive impact.

Each time professionals in the built environment field peel away the existing layers of a structure, they embark on an expedition into uncharted territory—a realm where unexpected hazards have the potential to inflate project expenses and threaten stringent schedules. Even with the progress made in surveying methods, this element of uncertainty, along with the unpredictability of retrofit results, continues to pose a major obstacle to large-scale retrofitting efforts.

Neglecting to swiftly undertake retrofitting measures on our existing office buildings not only endangers the possibility of assets becoming obsolete but also overlooks the huge opportunities at hand. These include the potential to unlock latent value through green premiums, save energy (and consequently money) by improving building performance and most importantly the chance to meet the critical net zero targets, essential to averting climate breakdown.

Commercial buildings account for 23% of carbon emissions within the UK’s built environment. Looking ahead to 2050, an overwhelming 80% of the buildings that will make up our future infrastructure are already standing, presenting an extensive potential for energy efficiency enhancements. Retrofitting is not just a choice; it’s the route to achieving a sustainable future. Yet, the existing rate of retrofitting activities is significantly lagging behind the necessary progress to reach the UK’s sustainability objectives for 2050, not to mention the crucial interim goals set for 2030.

To support owners, developers and all stakeholders in navigating and mitigating risks associated with retrofit, UKGBC led a cross-industry collaboration. This initiative not only explored but also demonstrated the need for closer and more transparent cooperation to achieve our collective goals.  The resulting report, Building the Case for Net Zero: Retrofitting Office Buildings, significantly deepens our shared understanding of how to retrofit existing buildings, the potential costs and the impacts on energy use and carbon emissions.

The report also highlights how significant savings in energy use can be achieved simply by optimising our buildings – averaging around 26%. Low cost, low impact interventions have the potential to unite stakeholders towards achieving common goals.  However, it is important to note that the current situation doesn’t strongly emphasize policy instruments or mandatory measures that actively promote optimization.

To achieve our net zero targets and unlock long-term value, we must act decisively now. While average deep retrofit projects yield significant energy savings (an average of 60-65%) and meet intermediate best practice targets, it’s the deepest retrofit projects that pave the way to future net zero targets. Given that trigger points for deep retrofit may arise only every 10-15 years, our current retrofit strategies must set their sights on these more ambitious targets.

Developers, and key stakeholders, must play a critical role in driving that ambition by:

  • Embracing a retrofit-first approach: Prioritising retrofit over new construction, to close the gap towards net zero.
  • Transparency with data: Clearly illustrating and benchmarking the impact of development decisions.
  • Whole life carbon assessments: Evaluating long-term decarbonisation strategies comprehensively.
  • Investing in long-term value: Recognising the wider benefits of retrofitting – social, economic and environmental.
  • Collaboration and knowledge sharing: By pooling insights, the industry can accelerate progress.

The built environment industry needs the government’s support to curb emissions. One critical avenue is regulating embodied carbon, which currently remains an untapped potential. In response the UK Green Building Council (UKGBC) and industry leaders are calling for urgent government action, advocating for clear and ambitious framework to regulate embodied carbon and pave the way towards sustainability.

Retrofitting offices stands as a critical pillar in decarbonising our society, enhancing resilience to changing climate and improving the health and wellbeing of people and the wider ecosystem. Together, through radical collaboration, we can achieve the net zero, resilient and regenerative built environment that is necessary for us to thrive in the decades to come.

Read the UKGBC’s “Building the Case for Net Zero: Retrofitting Office Buildings” report to explore real-world case studies, offering practical examples of retrofit strategies.

Yetunde Abdul is Head of Climate Action at UKGBC where she leads their Advancing Net Zero and whole life carbon reduction work.