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The Building Owner's Guide to Starting a Deep Energy Retrofit

What are the first steps to pursuing a Deep Energy Retrofit (DER) project? In Going Green in Construction: The Background of Deep Energy Retrofit, we explored the environmental, economic and regulatory forces driving energy-efficient retrofits of existing buildings. This shift requires owners and service providers alike to keep their finger on the pulse of current and pending legislation and solutions available to meet those demands.
In a 2021 survey conducted by ROCKWOOL Group and Cambridge Econometrics of 14,000 people across the United States, United Kingdom, France, Germany, Italy, Poland and Denmark, “81% believe it is important that buildings in general (including homes, offices, schools and hospitals) are energy efficient.” Conversely, only 11% of those surveyed felt “knowledgeable about how to apply for funding, seek advice on what to do, and find qualified contractors”.

In this blog post, we’ll ease these concerns and offer insight for building owners and industry stakeholders surrounding the initial steps of a DER project. For a glossary of related terms and acronyms, check out The ABCs of DER.

The timeline graphic below represents the high-level framework we utilize to guide owners through the process of achieving their DER objectives. Veterans of the industry may recognize that this closely mirrors the standard construction project methodology, with a few differences.

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Before even beginning step 1 of this process, we must first gauge if a building is an appropriate candidate for Deep Energy Retrofit by meeting with its owners and understanding their current goals and capabilities.

When to Contact a DER Solutions Provider

Given the broad scope of what could be defined as an ‘Energy Retrofit Solution”, it can be difficult to understand if, and when, it is appropriate to utilize a framework like the one provided above. Swapping out old light bulbs, implementing smart technology, replacing an original HVAC unit, and fully recladding the outside of a building can all contribute to reducing the carbon footprint for a structure. That said, interior and exterior building systems have complicated, symbiotic relationships, so it is important to evaluate any repairs or actions as interconnected, as opposed to standalone items, to get the most out of their intrinsic benefits.

Building Enclosure Online notes that “the building envelope affects approximately 50 percent of the energy demand of typical buildings.” So, for example, implementing solar panels and clean energy is counterproductive if the structure’s exterior walls are leaking or have significant thermal bridging. On the other hand, by properly sealing a building envelope and improving its performance, the owner might be able to purchase significantly smaller HVAC equipment to efficiently heat and cool the building, offering both short-term and long-term cost savings.

To determine if you should be engaging with a DER solutions provider, or if perhaps the project better resides within a more typical restoration framework, you should review the following three topics, which we will break down into more depth.
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  1. “What does success look like?” - What are the primary drivers of my project and how would I prioritize them?

  2. “Is this a Deep Energy Retrofit project?” - What are the key building considerations of my project, and do they match the definition of DER?

  3. “Where do I turn next?” – What resources are available to me in my state or region and how will that change my approach?

“What does success look like?”

The motivation driving a DER initiative can vary significantly depending on an owner’s building stock and goals for those properties. Beyond green and sustainable construction goals, compliance with local laws and penalty avoidance is an ever-present concern for any property holder.

For many in the multi-family residential realm, tenant comfort and retention are core interests, keeping in mind air and water leaks, which can lead to increased energy bills, potential property damage, and occupant disruption. For those in medical, the building’s sterility, mold infiltration, and indoor air quality (IAQ) weigh far heavier than drafty windows. In the educational system, student safety reigns supreme, with hazardous or outdated infrastructure potentially contributing to slips, trips, and falls. Even simply maintaining a modern aesthetic on a collegiate campus can be a beneficial recruitment tool in a highly competitive market.

Ultimately, it is critical that the owners recognize the “why” behind their financial investment and the criteria for success that will shift the conversation around what form a retrofit will take.

“Is this a Deep Energy Retrofit project?”

Even if energy-savings is not your primary driver, it is still important to understand whether the project is a suitable candidate for Deep Energy Retrofit. Review the list of questions below. If you find yourself answering yes to some or most of them, there is a reasonable chance you’re approaching Deep Energy Retrofit territory.

  1. Do I need to achieve an energy objective as a condition of my project? For example, meeting a pre-specified energy metric, such as Carbon Neutrality or Energy Star Score, or including efficient infrastructure or equipment such as solar panels, HVAC, or a vegetative roof.

  2. Do I require both interior and exterior remediation to achieve my project objectives?

  3. Does my building’s service life lend itself towards medium to long term solutions, lasting 10 or more years?

  4. Will I attempt to leverage incentive funds or green-lending as a source of funding for my project? If so, do these funding sources require compliance with performance or reporting standards?

  5. Is the ongoing maintenance and service of my asset a key project consideration or necessity for the purpose of achieving my funding requirements?

In addition to these questions, there are various resources that can help you determine if your project is a suitable candidate for Deep Energy Retrofit. City agencies like NYC Accelerator can provide expert guidance and trainings on energy-efficiency, clean energy technologies, local laws, and financing options to those considering a DER approach to their building restoration.

“Where do I turn next?”

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Now that we’ve taken the time to examine the owners’ fundamental project drivers and determined that the project is a good candidate to leverage the DER approach, it’s time to proceed.

The first step is finding experienced industry partners who can evaluate your current structure(s), recommend and prioritize key focus areas, and provide the materials and labor to guide you through the phases of design and execution.

Some states and regions offer a database of material, service, and full solutions provider lists to help pair customers with reputable companies. If this is not available in your locality, you may need to conduct some additional research to determine the organizations best suited to tackle your unique challenges.

When talking to these potential partners, here are some questions to ask:

  • Who will provide the scope and direction for my project?
  • Who will conduct the physical needs and energy assessment of my buildings?
  • Who will supply the critical materials?
  • Who will organize and execute the work?

These four questions may point you to four different, very capable organizations, so you should also consider ongoing communication as a factor in your decision, since Deep Energy Retrofit projects are inherently longer-term commitments. Look to trusted companies who may be able to take on the responsibility of several or all of those four items which can streamline the DER activities significantly with a single point of contact.

Conclusion

The prospect of venturing into a highly complex and holistic building overhaul can seem daunting at first. However, embracing the DER methodology and leveraging the resources in this blog series will help you navigate any challenges of this new and exciting space. In the next article, we will further investigate how to find an energy assessment partner, the key metrics and deliverables, and the subsequent actions to move your project forward.

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