Retrofit for the Future

The latest NCE Future Cities report (- read it here) is out and the most important topic that it covers is without doubt building retrofit. More and more buildings are being upgraded, reducing cost and energy use – but take up is generally slow.


According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) buildings are responsible for 40% of global energy use and around a third of global CO2 emissions, but in high density cities this is much higher.  New York for example estimates that 75% of all emissions are generated in buildings and London closer to 80%. Against this backdrop cities are working towards a range of carbon reduction targets, the largest of which is set out in the Climate Change Act of 2008 and requires an 80% reduction in overall emissions by 2050 against 1990 values.

In response to this some global cities are taking a leading position and their actions are having an important effect worldwide. The world’s most famous office block for example, the Empire State Building is coming to the end of a $13.2m energy retrofit programme that is set to pay back the capital investment in just over three years. Two years on from the commencement of the EPC contract and the building is outperforming expectations by 5 per cent in the first year and 4 per cent in the second. Perhaps more importantly though it has also met its original goal of producing a replicable model having made all of its data openly available. As a result around 100 buildings in the US are thought to be using the methodology. For other cities it has had a more inspirational effect with the Right Honorable Lord Mayor of Melbourne Robert Doyle telling NCE that this was the inspiration for its project to retrofit 1200 buildings with energy efficiency measures. To do this the city has created a unique funding model with private banks. So far 200 retrofit schemes are underway. The benefits have surpassed all expectations with a AUS$10bn boost to GDP and an additional 50,000 jobs created in construction, smart building, retrofitting, technical services and real estate . “We are having a mini boom in our city,” says Doyle. 

So what about the UK? Consultants and contractors tell NCE that to date retrofit work is mainly driven by large businesses and public buildings. “For me the green retrofit market has not moved as quickly as we thought it would,” says Paul Chandler executive vice president of Skanska UK. Skanska also features in the Future Cities report thanks to its leading position on green contracting.

There are many reasons for the slow take up on the commercial side not least a controversial decision by the Treasury in September 2011 to throw out proposals to make Display Energy Certificates (DECs), which are mandatory in public buildings, compulsory for the commercial sector too. Instead government is insisting that all building landlords have a minimum standard Energy Performance Certificate (EPC) rating of F by 2018, but experts say this does not go far enough. 

Without any requirements to report actual consumption many landlords are lacking motivation to invest, particularly given the troubled times that have beset the property sector in the wake of the recession.  Energy costs are often low down in the hierarchy of spending requirements.

Despite these stumbling blocks there is some good work being done in the UK. “We often see energy upgrades being carried out as part of a wider retrofit programme,” says Dr Paul Toyne, director of sustainability at Balfour Beatty. He points to a number of recent UK retrofit schemes as being important examples of what can be achieved. At Blackfriars station in London for example Balfour Beatty have fitted 6000m2 of solar panels to the roof generating half of the stations energy requirements and reducing carbon emissions by 511t per year.

The full article appears in NCE Future Cities November 2013

City Living

Do you live in a city? Probably. Over 50 percent of the world’s population does and every week this number swells by a further 1 million so that by 2050, 70 percent of the world’s inhabitants will be city dwellers. So of course these cities are under an inordinate amount of pressure to cope with the strain on resources, while at the same time maintaining their position as the engines of the economy. Furthermore they must be resilient to the pressures of climate change which as New York found in October 2012 can cause devastating damage.

The event was at the Siemens Crystal building at Royal Victoria, accessible by cable car
The event was at the Siemens Crystal building at Royal Victoria, accessible by cable car

So it was reassuring this week to attend an event which was designed to bring together the world’s largest cities and highlight the great planning underway to ensure that they are fit for the pressures of the future. And even more importantly that these cities are doing it in a sustainable way, a way that improves the environment instead of continuing to bleed dry the few valuable resources that the the world has left. As a journalist I get invited to lots of awards and events, some of which are nothing but a PR exercise designed to raise cash for events organisers, but I am pleased to say that this one has the potential to really make a difference to the world that we are living in. The C40 global cities initiative has combined forces with technology giant Siemens to establish the award event for cities that are showing leadership in managing climate change. Mayor’s from cities all over the world came together and talked about their initiatives, shared their ideas and learned from each other. This was kicked off by London Mayor Boris Johnson who welcomed the guests with the words “We will shamelessly steal your ideas, and lengthen London’s lead as the cleanest, greenest capital – with the possible exception of some of the cities here today.”

But the idea of intellectual theft persisted with several presenters and Mayor’s joking about where they had “stolen” their initiatives from. For example Melbourne has an award winning sustainable buildings programme inspired by New York’s Empire State Building retrofit project. I was lucky enough to interview the Lord Mayor of Melbourne Robert Doyle for New Civil Engineer (NCE) magazine and find out more about how his innovative project works and critically has harnessed private investment.  This and a host of other projects from the awards will be highlighted in NCE’s next Future Cities report, due for publication on 12th September.

After participating in the event for 2 days I left with a clear message which I have unsuccessfully tried to impart to my 4 year old son who started school this week.  “By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail,” said former US President Benjamin Franklin. Whether you are a 4 year old writing your name, a journalist readying for an interview or a Mayor considering the future needs of your city, preparation is everything.

Footnote: Benjamin Franklin was rather wise. Here are a few other words of wisdom from him:

“Any fool can condemn, criticise and complain – and most fools do”

“Well done is better than well said”

“Do not fear mistakes, you will know failure. Continue to reach out”

“Wine is constant proof that God loves us”

“I wake up every morning and grab for the morning paper. Then I look  at the obituary page. If my name is not on it I get up”