The Power of Existing Buildings: Save Money, Improve Health, and Reduce Environmental Impacts

The Power of Existing Buildings: Save Money, Improve Health, and Reduce Environmental Impacts


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Your building has the potential to change the world. Existing buildings consume approximately 40 percent of the energy and emit nearly half of the carbon dioxide in the US each year. In recognition of the significant contribution of buildings to climate change, the idea of building green has become increasingly popular. But is it enough? If an energy-efficient building is new construction, it may take 10 to 80 years to overcome the climate change impacts of the building process. New buildings are sexy, but few realize the value in existing buildings and how easy it is to get to “zero energy” or low-energy consumption through deep energy retrofits. Existing buildings can and should be retrofit to reduce environmental impacts that contribute to climate change, while improving human health and productivity for building occupants.
In The Power of Existing Buildings, academic sustainability expert Robert Sroufe, and construction and building experts Craig Stevenson and Beth Eckenrode, explain how to realize the potential of existing buildings and make them perform like new. This step-by-step guide will help readers to: understand where to start a project; develop financial models and realize costs savings; assemble an expert team; and align goals with numerous sustainability programs. The Power of Existing Buildings will challenge you to rethink spaces where people work and play, while determining how existing buildings can save the world. 
The insights and practical experience of Sroufe, Stevenson, and Eckenrode, along with the project case study examples, provide new insights on investing in existing buildings for building owners, engineers, occupants, architects, and real estate and construction professionals. The Power of Existing Buildings helps decision-makers move beyond incremental changes to holistic, results-oriented solutions.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781642830507
Publisher: Island Press
Publication date: 11/12/2019
Pages: 232
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Robert Sroufe is Murrin Chair of Global Competitiveness at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh; Curriculum Lead for the MBA Sustainability Program, John F. Donahue Graduate School of Business; and Full Professor, Management Department. Craig Stevenson and Beth Eckenrode are co-founders of the AUROS Group, a systems integrator that consults with building owners and developers, funders and project team members to define performance goals during planning, make informed decisions during design and construction and then track actual performance against goals once buildings are operational.

Read an Excerpt


My Building Has High-Performance Potential

I spent a great deal of money on this building, [but] I don't think it's performing. I can't see improvements in my utility bills and I don't feel like my building is any healthier. Something needs to change.

— Typical Existing-Building Owner

IF "SOMETHING NEEDS TO CHANGE" resonates with you, then you probably need to read this book now. You will see that it is possible today to make old buildings perform like new ones without paying a premium in construction costs. The primary enablers are modern building science, sophisticated data analytics, and the harnessing of a vast offering of Internet-of-Things (IoT) capabilities using a simple and elegant methodology. Our thesis that an existing building is the greenest building stands in contrast with the notion that the greenest building is the brand-new, highest-scoring, LEED- Platinum award winner with visible solar panels on the roof, or a living building, or one that has a perfect bioswale next to multiple forms of transit. We are redefining "green" and what it means to existing buildings around the world.

We go into this book knowing how difficult it is to be a sustainability advocate in today's environment. Knowing what is possible and how much better buildings can perform makes it challenging to put up with underperforming buildings or resistant project partners — you cannot unknow what you know. The time you spend with this book will help you convince other people that improving the performance of existing buildings is worth it — financially, socially, and ecologically.

Throughout the book we touch upon four key themes: (1) the complexity of transforming existing buildings into high-performance buildings, and the need for a holistic solutions; (2) how technology is driving the move toward the delivery of performance during building operations; (3) the difficulties of prioritizing investments that use advanced passive-building science; and (4) the value of learning from what has been accomplished, drawing examples from our research and experience.

Owners of existing buildings today have a growing, giant hairball of an issue — "a tangled, impenetrable mass of rules, traditions, and systems all based on what worked in the past — that exercises [an] inexorable pull into mediocrity." Building owners can see and feel this "impenetrable mass" and the resulting "pull into mediocrity," but most have no idea how to change. There is a general feeling of paralysis among existing-building owners such as city managers, school superintendents, developers, university presidents, and hospital presidents. Decades of putting off retrofits or simply replacing systems in kind are the primary causes of the paralysis. Leaders are also overwhelmed by rapidly changing technology and building standards. Most organizations don't have the funds to throw at a problem in the hope that results will improve. They need guidance.

Project team members (e.g., clients, building owners, developers, consultants, architects, contractors and subcontractors) intend to give the owner what he or she wants, yet often there are a number of challenges to achieving real building performance results in operations. It's not about intentions; it's more about the process of goal alignment. There are many challenges to reaching alignment of goals on a project. First, the owner's goals are not always clearly identified. Second, the construction process can be a series of disconnected handoffs from architects to engineers to construction managers to builders, resulting in project teams that are not integrated or aligned on specific goals. Third, there is typically a critical lack of empirical evidence, outside of construction costs and fees, to guide owners' decisions between building performance and costs during the construction project life cycle. Finally, there are very few, if any, building performance measurement and verification methods able to prove to owners on day one of operations that they got what they paid for in terms of building performance.

Our intent is not to look backwards and place blame, but to find the fundamental reasons for these problems and then provide achievable and affordable "how-to" strategies to extract full value from the renovation of existing buildings. To successfully convince owners to invest in renovating existing buildings, they have to believe the destination is worth the journey. Can owners derive enough value from existing buildings to justify the risks of investment, both financial and reputational? Finding the best way to convince building owners that investing in change is possible requires a collaborative approach.

Next, we look at managing change and innovation through collaboration.

Change and Innovation Require Collaboration

It's widely understood that people, instinctively, don't like change — nobody likes to see their cheese moved. Most links in the construction value chain are highly commoditized, extremely competitive, with little to no product differentiation. While there are sustainability certification programs available (see box 1-1), given the number and complexity of them, how is any owner, developer, or project team expected to navigate the world of sustainability programs in an industry where a week-long delay in the design or bid process could result in the loss of a project?

Box 1-1. Select Building Certification Systems

International Living Building Challenge (

The goal of LBC is to encourage the creation of a regenerative building environment. The challenge is an attempt to raise the bar for building standards from merely doing less harm to actually making a positive contribution to the environment. LBC helps owners create spaces that reconnect occupants with nature. Specifically, they recognize those who create buildings that generate more energy than they use, capture and treat all water on site, and use healthy materials.

Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) US Green Building Council (

LEED encompasses ten ratings systems for the design, construction, and operation of buildings, homes, and neighborhoods. To become certified, contractors must document certain details for the construction and commissioning of a building. In LEED version 4, certification requires a project to aspire to reduce energy use by at least 5 percent of ASHRAE 90.1.

Passive House ( and

Passive House is a rigorous standard for energy efficiency in buildings, seeking to reduce ecological footprints. Passive House results in ultra-low-energy buildings that require little energy for space heating or cooling.

Passive House (Phi) EnerPHit

EnerPHit is a Phi Passive House program for certified energy retrofits for existing buildings. Reductions in heating energy demand can be up to 90 percent by using improved thermal insulation, reduced thermal bridges, improved airtightness, high-quality windows, ventilation with heat recovery, efficient heating and cooling generation, and use of renewable energy sources.


The RESET Air certification is a performance-based building standard that specifies air-quality standards, air-monitor equipment and deployment, and air-quality data management. RESET Air is broadly accepted as the most aspirational air-quality standard and serves as a reference for most of the other green building certification programs and international organizations.

WELL Building (

The WELL Building Standard is a performance-based system for measuring, certifying, and monitoring features of the built environment that impact human health and well-being through air, water, nourishment, light, fitness, comfort, and mind. The WELL Building standard explores how design, operations, and behaviors within the places we live, work, learn, and play can be optimized to advance human health and well-being.

Net-Zero-Energy Buildings

A net-zero-energy building (NZEB) is one that produces as much

energy as it uses over the course of a year. The metrics combine exemplary building design to minimize energy requirements with renewable-energy systems that meet these reduced energy needs.

The Department of Energy (DOE) and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) have led most of the work on net-zero-energy buildings to date. Regardless of the metric used for a zero-energy building, minimizing energy use through efficient design should be a fundamental criterion and the highest priority of all NZEB projects.

We advocate for an approach we call the Natural Order of Sustainability (see box 1-2), which is an energy consumption and indoor environmental quality methodology that treats buildings as a living organism (also known as a biophilic approach). It promotes a passive first, active second, and renewable last strategy, which ensures that the most enduring systems of a building are optimized for performance first. By maximizing the benefits of passive systems first, the size and cost of subsequent systems like heating, ventilation, and cooling (HVAC) and/or renewables is reduced.

Being a change agent isn't easy, but it is precisely the way to achieve differentiation and set yourself apart from your competition. You do have to be ready for the skeptics and folks who say, "owners are weary of all the hype around sustainability" or "we can't afford green strategies" or our favorite, "investing in the envelope of an existing building never pays." The key to getting past skeptics and traditionalists is to talk less about designing a high-performance building and focus more on operating one. The problem all sustainability advocates share is that we never identified the end game. If you line up 100 sustainability advocates and ask them to define high-performance buildings, you will most likely get 100 different answers.

Box 1-2. The Natural Order of Sustainability

Sustainability Planning Methodology of Passive First / Active Second / Renewables Last

Passive First

Maximizing passive strategies (i.e., insulation, envelope, air barriers, thermal bridges, shading, windows and doors) first will reduce loads for heating and cooling systems, thereby requiring smaller and more-efficient active solutions for mechanical systems.

The Passive House standard is the most rigorous set of design principles based on building science used to attain a quantifiable and ambitious level of energy efficiency within a specific quantifiable comfort level. Passive House sets the performance standard at approximately 14 kBtu/sf/yr on the basis that every functioning building requires some level of energy to operate. Passive House's philosophy is simple: "maximize your gains and minimize your losses" through climate-specific building science. Passive House has identified the mathematical limits of diminishing returns for envelope performance (see and A passive building is designed and built in accordance with five building-science recommendations:

1. Climate-specific insulation levels with continuous insulation throughout its entire envelope

2. Thermal-bridge-free connections for all building-envelope sections

3. High-performance windows (double or triple-paned windows, depending on climate and building type) and doors

4. Airtight building envelope to prevent infiltration of outside air and exfiltration of indoor conditioned air

5. High-efficiency heat and moisture-recovery ventilation

A comprehensive systems approach to modeling, design, and construction produces extremely resilient buildings. Passive-design strategy uses highly durable material solutions like fenestration, insulation, air barrier membranes, and cladding that have a long use life even in extreme weather conditions. As a result, passive buildings offer tremendous long-term benefits in the form of energy efficiency and indoor air quality. Passive building principles have been successfully applied to all building typologies, from single-family homes to multifamily apartment buildings, offices, hospitals, schools, and skyscrapers.

Some cities, such as Brussels and Dublin, have introduced Passive House criteria — not certification — into their building codes and have achieved transformative results in the energy performance of new construction. As a result, Brussels now demonstrates a large downward trend in GHG emissions, making it a world leader in energy conservation in its building stock.

Active Second

Implementing passive load-reduction strategies will reduce the size of the active systems and mechanicals required to ventilate, heat, and cool buildings. Design loads in a passive-house building are drastically lower because of the focus on the envelope and insulation, extreme airtightness, and superefficient windows. In simple terms, the building will be easier and cheaper to heat and cool, and the air quality will be better.

Strategies to reduce energy consumption for heating and cooling are most effective when mechanical equipment is decoupled. Logically, planners will optimize passive space-conditioning solutions as a core mixed-mode design strategy. Common passive space-conditioning solutions include an independent balanced mechanical ventilation system with heat and moisture recovery and preconditioning. This strategy will maximize a constant and filtered fresh air supply. Remaining peak loads can then be further mitigated by implementing highly efficient active heating and cooling systems.

Building-enclosure air-tightening means that moist, dirty air isn't leaking into the building's interior space from exterior sources. A constant flow of fresh filtered air flushes the living space without pulling in hot, cold, or wet air that the HVAC system must then condition.

Planners are challenged to manage internal loads and plug loads with efficient appliances, HVAC, plumbing and lighting systems that minimize sensible and latent loads and internal gains. If everything is done properly to this point, a new building will be designed to perform at approximately 14 kBtu/sf/yr, and an existing building will be designed to perform at approximately 20 kBtu/sf/yr, making them both perfectly positioned to reach 0 kBtu/sf/yr — Zero-Energy.

Renewables Last

Passive-building strategies reduce loads which results in active- building strategies that cost less and consume less energy. As a final step, renewables can be used to zero out remaining energy consumption and carbon emissions. At this point, on-site energy generation, photovoltaic arrays, geothermal well fields, and wind farms are more affordable due to their smaller size and lower first costs. In the future, replacement costs for the renewable solutions are naturally reduced, providing advantageous life-cycle costs for the final renewable solution. Building owners who believe that renewables are the silver bullet to energy efficiency and adopt them before adopting the first two steps of the Natural Order of Sustainability are discovering that the return on investment of a renewables-first energy strategy developed in isolation does not make financial sense when analyzed as first-costs or life-cycle costs.

Many believe that installing rooftop solar panels will resolve many of a building's energy sins. While they certainly help, the problem is that there is just not enough real estate on the roof of most buildings to handle the total building loads. Quality improvements to the envelope will last for 50 to 100 years. If limited dollars are available for a project, then putting the dollars into improvements that prevent the loss of heating and cooling energy makes more sense than adding more active equipment to mitigate the losses. When you look at the thermal image of a typical existing building on a 20-degree day and the building is blazing yellow or orange, the heat loss in the image may indicate a surface building temperature of 60 degrees. Doesn't it make more sense to prevent the loss of energy before installing another piece of equipment to generate more energy to make up for that loss? After all, the cheapest form of energy is, naturally, the energy never used.

Instead of following the traditional "loud voices" in the room, building owners, with the support of building performance advocates, have an opportunity to (1) establish their performance goals based on their own building(s); (2) think about a building as a system; and (3) use technology to make building(s) smarter and more transparent. The opportunity for existing buildings to become high-performance buildings demands accountability, with properly placed roles and responsibilities on every team member. Building owners who leave themselves room to bring new tools and ideas to the project team will have the greatest success. Goals and targets can always and should always be refined, but strategies should never substitute for building performance goals. When that happens, misalignment occurs, and frustration and confusion ensue. As an example of misalignment, occurs, and frustration and confusion ensue. As an example of misalignment, think of your past project teams who installed bike racks at a building — bike racks that will likely never be used — solely to achieve a few extra LEED Sustainability Program points?


Excerpted from "The Power of Existing Buildings"
by .
Copyright © 2019 Robert P. Sroufe, Craig E. Stevenson, Beth A. Eckenrode.
Excerpted by permission of ISLAND PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Introduction: Why Should I Think About Retrofitting My Building?
Chapter 1:  My Building Has High Performance Potential
Chapter 2:  Where Do I Start?
Chapter 3: The Importance of a Project Plan: Every Building Needs One
Chapter 4:  Can I Afford This?
Chapter 5:  The Building Envelope Holds the Key
Chapter 6:  How Real Is Zero Energy for an Old Building?
Chapter 7:  Operating Buildings for High Impact
Chapter 8:  Case Studies
Chapter 9:  Existing Buildings Can Save the World

Appendix 1: Building Your Plan: Project Development Homework
Appendix 2: Critical Resources on Existing Buildings

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