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Retrofitting for energy-efficiency

Last updated: 25 August, 2011
Achal Narayanan 17:55 IST

The basic definition of building retrofit, to quote an American expert in energy-efficient building improvement, David H Allen, is the modification of the infrastructure of the building to improve its energy usage, comfort, safety, health and durability.

This could mean improving building components, building operating systems and equipment, and installing energy-efficient appliances. While the concept of constructing green buildings is now well established, retrofitting of existing buildings is still a comparatively new concept.

In the Indian context, a recent report by the international advisory firm Jones Lang LaSalle is of considerable interest. The report says that the central business districts (CBDs) in most Indian cities have a huge potential to retrofit existing old buildings. Retrofitting emerges as a preferred option, as compared with re-development, to enhance the attractiveness and economic life of the old buildings.

The JLL report, titled ‘Retrofitting India’s Central Business Districts,’ throws light on the vast potential, benefits and other aspects of retrofitting. A CBD is deemed as the most valuable business location within a city and is characterised by high land and property prices. The high demand for CBD office locations arises from various factors, including established business ecosystems, accessibility to services, superior infrastructure and a prestigious address.

The majority of office buildings in India’s CBDs are at least three decades old, with rundown structures arising from poor maintenance. The resulting poor operational efficiency leads to higher operating costs for the occupiers of these buildings. With a very limited supply of new office space, tenants in the country’s CBDs have traditionally been forced to occupy existing buildings that are low on quality and high on operating costs.
The global economic downturn has increased the pressure on all businesses to reduce costs. This remains true even as some Indian businesses are showing signs of growth during a local economic recovery.

In such a climate, the attractiveness of CBDs is diminishing relative to neighbouring micro-markets, which are in a position to offer larger office spaces of better quality at comparatively lower costs. Indeed, vacancy levels in India’s CBDs have registered an increase as tenants continue to show a preference for higher-quality, lower-cost office space found in alternative locations elsewhere in the city.
This situation calls for an improvement in the quality of existing office buildings, which can be achieved through re-development or retrofitting. Retrofitting is usually the preferred means between the two options to increase the economic lifecycle of existing older buildings. According to a recent analysis by JLL, owners and investors of CBD office space have already capitalised, or are planning to do so, on the market recovery by retrofitting their property.

Global developments

The William J (Bill) Clinton Foundation’s Clinton Climate Initiative (CCI) launched in 2007 an Energy Efficiency Building Retrofit Program which brings together many of the world’s largest cities, energy service firms and financial institutions in a major effort to reduce energy consumption in existing buildings. CCI works with industry and financial, government and building partners to overcome market barriers and develop financially sound solutions that accelerate the growth of the global building efficiency market.

The initiative has helped initiate more than 200 retrofit projects encompassing over 500 million square feet of building space in more than 47 cities around the world. These include municipal buildings across five cities, more than 20 schools and universities, and the largest public housing stock in North America. In the commercial sector, CCI has initiated building retrofit projects in cities such as Mumbai, New York, Chicago, Johannesburg and Bangkok. Private building owners working on energy-efficiency retrofits include mall owners in India and Korea, and Wein & Malkin, owners of the iconic Empire State Building in New York.

The Empire State Building, an icon of 1930s architecture, is now undergoing a retrofit with a view to achieving improved energy efficiency and financial performance. The project, part of CCI’s Building Retrofit Program, could reduce the building’s energy use by 38 per cent and energy bills by $4.4 million a year, while also substantially reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Two architectural firms with sharply differing profiles have recently taken on projects – one in Spain and the other in New York – that make retrofitting look as ambitious as the original design. The New York-based firm Axis Mundi was approached by a mineral water company in Spain to convert its six-storey office building in a prominent locality of Barcelona into a striking visual statement. Axis Mundi, after studying a range of water patterns, designed a new faade that is technically advanced. The building will have two elliptical interior voids to admit light and air. Axis Mundi has fused the product (water) and its packaging material (a plastic container) in the building’s own wrapper.

For Cornell University’s College of Architecture, Art and Planning at Ithaca, New York, which needed much more than a facelift, the Office of Metropolitan Architecture proposed an ambitious plan – called Paul Milstein Hall – which revised not just a single campus but the campus as an idea. Scheduled to open in the autumn of 2011, the building’s commitments to sustainability extend well beyond the roof’s symbolism.

Singapore’s lead

Turning to South East Asia, one often hears of Singapore as a leader in sustainable development in the region. Malaysia, for instance, developed the Green Building Index after extensive consultation with Singapore’s Building and Construction Authority. In June 2010, Singapore hosted the second biennial World Cities Summit, which sought to promote “sustainable and livable cities.”

Singapore’s Building and Construction Authority (BCA) is said to have done good work in regulating the property market by taking the lead. For example, it has required all new public buildings and those undergoing major retrofitting to meet the minimum standards of environmental sustainability equivalent to the Green Mark certified level under its first Green Building Master Plan.

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