Cities and the Deep Energy Retrofit Challenge

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Buildings — with their thirst for electricity, natural gas, and fuel oil — are a major contributor of atmospheric carbon. However, the building stock in the United States turns over, on average, every century, meaning today’s carbon emission output cannot be resolved without deep changes in existing buildings. The task is transformation.

The challenges are varied and wide-ranging. They include issues from urban planning and design to basic lifestyle, building purpose to building materials, building system integration to integration among buildings, and much more. And the issues involve life quality dimensions of building performance as well as technical energy performance.

Economic issues are also part of the equation. The standard metric of wise investment is financial return within some reasonable period. But what acceptable financial metric of performance would justify the substantial retrofit investment that high energy performance requires? Existing buildings are already capable of functioning as they are for traditional purposes for decades to come, returning on the original investment in predictable ways. Will the additional “energy investment” required for deep retrofits augment the return in an economically compelling way?  The answer is, under current regulatory conditions, probably not.

Cities, and occasionally states, have moved to the fore in carbon emission strategy in part because many of the central implementation issues are under their jurisdiction. Another reason, however, is the absence of national leadership. Organizations like the C40, 100 Resilient Cities, and, more recently, the Resilient Cities Catalyst arose to support international efforts, especially through the United Nations, by empowering cities with knowledge when the US government was mired in division or, in the past few years, showed antipathy toward the main instruments of international action. If localities are to be the primary engines of change, however, they will need to overcome a steep learning curve. Successfully addressing such a challenge will require a comprehensive approach to building transformation and re-educating building delivery and management communities.

It would be hard to overstate the role education and training will need to play in transformation strategy. The regulatory regimes required for building sustainability will, directly and indirectly, require deep changes in current practice as well as new practices for which few in the building delivery and management chain have been prepared. Moreover, many of the specific practices required are yet to be discovered by industry, which will struggle to formulate the new questions that need to be asked.

Deep energy retrofit strategy

Deep energy retrofits are currently a small fraction of the overall building stock. There are many concrete reasons for reticence in the context of building markets: costs, risks, and responsibilities — including tenant-landlord split incentives — are not well aligned to drive change, and the costs can be substantial. Established practices and knowledge gaps combine to elevate the perceived risk. In some locations, the cost of secure carbon-based energy is so low as to vastly diminish ordinary incentives for

market evolution. The risk being addressed can seem quite remote, the return difficult to quantify, and financing therefore hard to support. The structure and dynamics of building markets generally took shape in response to long active forces and facts that today remain operative, dominate the concrete world of management, and bear little direct relation to the newer macro concerns that have given rise to an interest in deep energy retrofit.

The DNA of the building marketplace has had few concrete reasons to evolve toward a structure and dynamic welcoming of such retrofit. As the new macro forces — in brief, a carbon-driven climate crisis — emerge more fully, they might over time integrate into the fabric of market experience in ways that will drive market evolution. But science and experience are making clear that the pace at which the new conditions and risks are emerging is too rapid and involves too much uncertainty to permit a strategy of long-term market evolution to suffer. The paradigm of atmospheric facts is shifting much faster than can the market paradigm of building-energy strategy, and the gap between the two is the source of today’s retrofit challenge.

The required strategic shift to widespread deep energy retrofits will amount to an act of market-DNA engineering, not an evolution. And like many forms of genetic engineering, it inevitably gives rise to concerns over goals, mechanisms, legitimacy, necessity, and unintended consequences. Thus, in addition to the substantial technical challenges involved in market transformation, there is a wide range of what can fairly be called cultural challenges. Traditional buildings represent tested responses to demands made upon buildings over hundreds of years — demands arising from the fabric of human need and enterprise and the cultures that reflect them. It should be no surprise that many, perhaps most, will look skeptically at proposals that would upend generations of accumulated experience on what makes an effective building.

Community leaders across the US who are mindful of the emerging but novel macro-carbon crisis are also awakening to the parallel novelty of such a dual challenge. A few are taking steps to meet it. Cities on the forefront of climate action, like New York and Washington, DC, for example, have recognized the challenge ahead and begun to lay the groundwork by implementing ambitious building emissions regulations that put financial liability on building owners that do not take the necessary steps toward reducing emissions. New York’s ONENYC: The Plan for a Strong and Just City, issued in 2015, pushed the city’s greenhouse gas reduction target to 80% by 2050; its 2019 Climate Mobilization Act put the strategy into law and established the Office of Building, Energy, and Emissions Performance. In Washington, DC, the 2018 Clean Energy DC plan targets a 50% reduction in GHG emissions by 2032 and commits the city to becoming carbon neutral by 2050.

It is a difficult task to understand such a deeply rooted challenge, but it is perhaps a greater one to know what needs to be done and how to do it in a world where traditional practice is increasingly irrelevant. Those tasks now define the future of building delivery and management and the policy regimes that will oversee them.

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