Retrofitting old buildings can provide immediate environmental benefits

The focus on green standards goes beyond the creation of new state-of-the-art buildings, there is an increasing appreciation that maintaining older buildings is just as vital.

  • 16 Mar 2017
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  • Lendlease Author Better Places

In cities across the world, iconic buildings make headlines and receive plaudits for their innovative and eye-catching design. The growing demand for greener buildings has been partly facilitated by an emerging generation of builders and architects who have firm beliefs in resource efficiency. However, this focus on green standards goes beyond the creation of new state-of-the-art buildings such as the Shard and the Cheesegrater: there is an increasing appreciation that maintaining older buildings is just as vital.

The UK’s 1.8m non-domestic buildings produce almost 17% of the nation’s carbon dioxide emissions. As a result, making them energy efficient has never been more important. Many of these were created at a time when environmental standards were much lower and little or no consideration was given to sustainability. As a result, there are now many opportunities to retrofit existing buildings with sustainability-enhancing technology, delivering efficiency benefits for owners and tenants alike.

In the US, there’s a great deal of appreciation for the sustainability benefits of retrofitting older buildings. The most prominent example is the Empire State Building in New York. Its 2009 retrofit has saved millions of dollars in running costs and the building consistently outperforms expectations for energy efficiency. A similar approach was taken at the port of San Francisco’s Pier 1, the headquarters of the IMF in Washington and the City-County Building in Indianapolis.

To underline the importance of retrofitting, the Energy Saving Trust estimates that for the UK to meet its carbon reduction target of 80% by 2050, virtually every building in the country will need to have a low-energy makeover.

A report by the National Trust’s Preservation Green Lab found that retrofitting an older building is de facto greener than building high-tech structures from scratch. Whereas new-builds typically take between 10 and 80 years to offset the environmental impacts of the initial construction process, retrofits provide huge environmental benefits immediately.

A number of cutting-edge projects are leading the way. Just off London’s Regent Street, the recent retrofit of 7 Air Street, a 1920s office block, is the first Grade-II listed building to be awarded a BREEAM outstanding rating. Owned by the crown estate, it’s an example of clever application of new kit to an old building. But it also highlights the importance of having owners and tenants working in partnership and fully committed to sustainability.

The construction industry has the technology and expertise to ensure that the UK’s old building stock is as high-performing and exciting as any new-build. Photograph: University of Leicester


Lendlease aspires to be a global sustainable leader and demonstrate a positive impact on the environment in all of its activities and developments. It is currently retrofitting the University of Leicester’s Stirling and Gowan engineering building, a striking 1960s structure with an innovative patent-glazed diamond-shaped roof.

Along with a number of partners, Lendlease is in the process of individually engineering and replacing each of the building’s 2,500 panes with high-performance treated glass. As this glass is heavier and thicker than the original panels, painstaking work is being carried out to apply each one to the 1960 structure without any adverse effects, while also maintaining the essential aesthetic of the Grade II-listed building.

On completion next month, its heat loss and solar ray entry levels will be at a higher standard of energy efficiency than one of the most sustainable developments in London, One New Change, another Lendlease project.

While the UK’s building stock will continue to age, the construction industry already has the technology and expertise to ensure these developments are as high-performing and exciting as any new-build. And as the management of older buildings remains one of the major challenges cities face as they try to make urban environments more sustainable, investing in an innovative solution is more important than ever.