Retrofit Nation

The expansion of state and local building codes addressing energy efficiency, combined with the success of the LEED ratings system, shows that policymakers as well as homebuyers are increasingly demanding energy efficiency and environmental awareness when it comes to new construction. You’ll find new LEED certified office towers, new sustainable communities, and new net-zero homes everywhere now.

What the mainstreaming of green practices in new construction does not reveal, however, is the fact that America’s “built environment” has already been well-established for the past half century. Some say we don’tneed more buildings, and with the exception of Texas and a few other pockets of growth in the south, we don’t need more new homes. In any given year, only about one percent of the U.S. building stock is new construction.

Meanwhile, more than 70 percent of America’s buildings are more than five years old and operate so inefficiently that they would not have been allowed to be built had they been proposed today. Furthermore, many metropolitans are still struggling with vacant housing stock left over from the housing bust. What that shows is that there is an enormous, and often overlooked, demand from homeowners and building operators alike to invest in simple, green retrofits.

According to the United States Green Building Council, a green retrofit refers to upgrades to an existing building that improve energy and environmental performance, reduce water use, improve the comfort and quality of the space in terms of natural light, noise, and air quality, and are completed in a way that is financially beneficial to the owner and tenants. That doesn’t necessarily just mean installing nice, shiny new solar panels on your roof; it also includes installing compact fluorescent light bulbs, replacing old lead-based paint with new VOC-free paint, and investing in insulation.

The Secret Low-Hanging Fruit

The beauty of retrofitting from a sustainability point of view is that retrofitting is substantially more economical, flexible and environmentally friendly than building anything from scratch. That obvious observation aside, there is much to love when it comes to green retrofits – especially for cost-conscious homeowners.

For one thing, green retrofitting can be tackled on a project by project basis, depending on the availability of time and funds, allowing for flexibility and low upfront costs. Easy priority upgrades, such as attic insulation or double pane windows can be pursued first and with immediate energy savings.

Green retrofits are good for the environment and practical. Four out of the five most cost effective ways to cut building emissions (insulation, lighting, air conditioning, and heating) can be addressed through retrofits. The fifth, building orientation in regards to the sun, is only available for new construction. Considering that buildings account for 40 percent of all carbon emissions, it makes a lot of environmental sense to make them work better and consume less energy.

Financial Payoffs of a Retrofit

The payoff is immediate and substantial. A couple hundred dollars of strategically placed spray-foam insulation in an older home can pay itself off in energy savings within a few years. For homeowners who don’t have the patience to wait up to a decade for an investment to pay itself off, as is sometimes the case for solar, these little things certainly add up. For example, installing a low-flow shower head can result in a 1000 percent return on investment in one year!

Of course holistically designed and administered net-zero and LEED certified buildings are the future of America’s built environment. However, for the millions of us already happily settled in a home, and not looking to go anywhere soon, there are any number of cost-saving and energy-saving retrofitting options available.

Consult an Ecobuilder

Your best bet would be to consult with an ecobuilder about professional services and current government rebates. Homeowners willing to just reach out and grasp the low-hanging fruit of green retrofitting stand to not only save money, but also save the environment.

By Lloyd Lee