Retrofitting - The Way Forward?

Wednesday 6th January 2021

The UK’s goal of achieving net zero carbon emissions by 2050 may be in jeopardy unless efforts are quickly stepped up and advanced. As nearly half of the UK’s carbon footprint comes from the built environment, retrofitting existing buildings is one of the most powerful tools the country has in achieving its ambitious emissions targets.

Retrofitting comes in many different forms – for example, cavity wall insulation, replacing or refurbishing energy users in ventilation systems, improved lighting controls, improved pipes, pumps and controls in chiller plants, smart building management systems, installation of high efficiency boilers and the use of smart metering. Retrofitting old buildings allows for the use of new techniques and technologies to radically improve energy efficiency, making the building more sustainable and reducing its carbon footprint. Retrofitting buildings could also allow the occupiers to offset costs by selling their excess generated energy via the grid.

However, there are issues hampering progress in retrofitting on a larger scale. One is that due to UK building tax laws, for the buildings that require the most attention, it is often cheaper to demolish and rebuild than to retrofit. This is inherently unsustainable and at odds with the overall goal of carbon neutrality. There is an urgent need, therefore, to make better use of the existing building stock.

Older buildings are often energy inefficient and may stay that way for decades. It was estimated at the 2020 Decarbonising Construction conference that 80% of the UK buildings which will exist in 2050 have already been built. As the refurbishment of some buildings can take years, it is imperative that retrofitting happens as soon as possible before 2050, with the most effective retrofits prioritised. It is widely agreed that a particular focus of retrofitting efforts should be heat pumps, as low-carbon heat pump systems can reduce carbon emissions by up to 65% compared to gas-fired boilers.  Comparative emissions are decreasing each year as the decarbonisation of the grid continues.  The government has announced that by 2025, all new homes will be banned from installing gas boilers, although retrofitting these technologies is still relatively slow.

The Government’s attempts to launch a ‘green recovery’ from the COVID-19 pandemic could present the perfect opportunity to kick-start the retrofitting revolution. Indeed, there are growing calls from many within the industry, such as the Construction Leadership Council, to expand national retrofitting efforts. Progress is being made, with the Treasury’s Summer Economic Update this year promising a £3 billion package to improve the energy efficiency of existing buildings in the UK.

A final word of caution – retrofitting is a complex process which involves careful balancing of the various characteristics of a building, as changes in one part of a building can have unintended consequences elsewhere. Common issues include the adoption of inappropriate mechanical solutions, overambitious or under-detailed designs, cost-cutting techniques used in delivery and lack of guidance to building occupiers about new building controls and systems. It is therefore advised to always use a trusted provider to deliver high quality and effective retrofits.

If you would like to know more about the energy efficiency of your building or smart building management systems, contact E2 Services at [email protected] and we will direct your query accordingly.

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