Retrofit can be a realistic route to net zero

18 July 2022
Experts at MEED-Mashreq event discuss how retrofitting can serve as the stepping stone towards a net-zero carbon future

As the costs attached to meeting net-zero goals become clearer, built-environment specialists are prompting stakeholders to consider the benefits of building retrofits.

Speaking at the construction edition of the MEED-Mashreq Business Leaders Club on 9 June, UAE-based experts emphasised the role of construction firms and their funding partners in exploring options to give existing properties a new lease of life.

Retrofit provides gains

The World Green Building Council (WGBC) highlights that landlords in major cities including Vancouver and London are trying to meet increasing consumer demand for more efficient buildings by revamping existing spaces.

Changes include insulation and solar panels, LED lighting upgrades, low-flow water fixtures that help to regulate water usage, and sealing and weatherising the envelope of buildings to create a better separation of outdoor air and the conditioned ambient air.

Integrating these improvements with enhanced digital infrastructure can further bolster operational performance and improve maintenance practices.

Lessons in retrofit
Retrofit is a major component of Europe's net-zero strategy. WGBC’s pilot Build Upon project brought together 2,000 organisations across 13 countries to design a framework for renovating existing buildings as a means of reducing emissions.
The collaboration included governments and local authorities, constructions companies, product manufacturers, energy providers and banks – and its success led to the launch in 2020 of Build Upon 2, to give cities across Europe the tools to achieve net-zero carbon status by 2050.

Estimates from the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE) indicate that comprehensive retrofits of commercial buildings can enable up to 40 per cent energy savings compared to single-measure improvements.

Local authorities across the UAE are spearheading retrofit programmes to enhance the energy performance of some existing buildings. Dubai leads the way and has completed the retrofitting of more than 1,000 buildings and 7,000 villas.

According to Dubai Electricity & Water Authority (Dewa), its project of retrofitting 30,000 buildings across the emirate could help to unlock savings of more than $22bn.

Dewa further reports that the project will help Dubai to eliminate nearly 1 million tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions, and reduce consumption of more than 5.6 billion imperial gallons of water and 1.7 terawatt hours (TWh) of electricity by 2030.

Building a business case

A government representative from Ras al-Khaimah said that as awareness of retrofit options increases, it is important to ensure the process is accessible to a wider section of the property market, and not just to bigger players.

“Governments must consider initiatives such as retrofit incentives to remove obstacles that could otherwise prevent well-intentioned landlords and developers from being able to consider retrofit as a potential route to net zero,” he said.

Also vital is greater clarity on financial regulations and minimum efficiency standards.

“A strong and transparent business case, supported by measurement and validation, is also needed to see how benefits are realised over the whole life of the building. Only then will we see if retrofit is the optimum low-carbon, net-zero focused solution.”

Retrofitting efforts are apparent in the UAE, but there are no mandates that stipulate necessary upgrades of older buildings. This is seen as an issue to be overcome before retrofitting can become a natural progression in a building’s lifecycle.

Community benefit

A Dubai Municipality representative at the Business Leaders Club said that the region’s construction industry has been accustomed to tackling big projects and may take time to come to terms fully with the change in scale that retrofit brings.

“As more people end up living longer in the city, they will hopefully be more inclined to invest in their homes,” he said.

“For this reason, it is important to recognise the importance of smaller, niche retrofit projects to regularise opportunities so that everyone in the community can benefit. This opens a new market within the contracting side, where smaller firms can help people to retrofit their homes with new technologies that will help them make their own contribution to reducing carbon emissions.”

The materials used in construction also influence the decision to retrofit. An engineering consultant at the Business Leaders Club meeting said that while buildings have become much more energy-efficient, significant amounts of energy are still required – and therefore large amounts of carbon are emitted both during the manufacturing of components and in the construction phase.

This has added more weight to the argument that retrofitting existing structures to increase their energy efficiency could be a good way to assess the impact of embodied carbon released during the build, operation and demolition of new structures.

“However, mandating carbon assessments is only the first step in a long and difficult journey to realising a substantive reduction in a building’s overall carbon footprint,” said the engineering consultant.

“The need for low-carbon construction materials at commercially sensible prices is an obvious and considerable hurdle to reducing the overall carbon footprint of the construction industry.”

This article is a part of a series of reports from the Construction Business Leaders Club held by MEED and Mashreq on 9 June in Dubai. Attendees at the closed-door event were speaking on condition of anonymity. 

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