Sustainable BuildingsRetrofittingWhat Is Retrofitting? - Unlocking A Building's Potential

What Is Retrofitting? – Unlocking A Building’s Potential

Karl Dickinson
Karl Dickinson
Change matters. It takes courage. As a writer - and citizen - I am inspired by stories of those who challenge the 'we've always done it this way' attitude. We can do better - it's time to listen to those who go against the grain.

Ever-greener attitudes and regulations ensure new builds, that accommodate growing populations, are efficient and climate-ready. But what about the plethora of existing ones? We can’t just bulldoze them all and start again. So, how can we equip pre-standing stock for the future, to serve our needs and be less of a blight on the environment? Retrofitting is the answer.

We face a crisis: the world is heating up. Urgency is reflected in the global scale of the Paris Agreement‘s ambition to halt temperature rise below 2°C above pre-industrial levels. How we manage greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions – mainly carbon dioxide – now will shape the world of tomorrow… and detrimentally change things forever if we don’t act fast enough!

The built environment accounts for 39% of global carbon release and churns out 19% of all GHG emissions through energy use, yet 80% of this energy is wasted due to inefficient constructions and occupants’ poor behaviours. It’s a major contributor to climate change, pollutant-induced disease, city smog, resource depletion, and habitat destruction. Consumption must drop by 80% to hit 2050 targets and reverse this prognosis. Buildings and attitudes need to adapt to make this possible.

Scaling mindful urban renovations significantly will put us back in control of our destiny and make us guardians of the natural world.

Start at the Beginning: What Exactly Is Retrofitting?

In short, retrofitting is the act of modifying existing buildings to be more energy-efficient,  using any means that weren’t installed during original construction: namely, hardware, utility management tools, renewable energy production methods, and smart technology.

It’s a sustainable alternative to demolition and/or building anew. It allows us to make current constructions suitable and comfortable for living, working, and playing in for the years ahead, including protections against predicted levels of heat rise. In other words, future-proof.

Retrofitting can be applied to any form of building. Residential, low-rise properties still very much dominate the market, but solutions for public, historic, and high-rise constructions are creeping in and will be essential to make a full-city (and worldwide) splash. According to the US Green Building Council, 61% of all constructions are now retrofit projects (although globally it’s as little as 0.5%).

With like-for-like components and efficiencies, refurbished premises are even better for the biosphere than new green design builds; energy expended in constructing from scratch takes up to 80 years to offset! Makeovers avoid this.

Core Components

Even if you’ve never heard of retrofitting, you’ll be familiar with some of the practices. Loft insulation and double glazing to assist with trapping heat in colder climes, for example.

Here’s a cheat sheet of common measures currently on the market to help us hit net zero – making sure we don’t add any more GHGs into the atmosphere than we remove:

Temperature Control

Adding insulation, repairing cracked facades, and making rooms airtight saves heat loss from exposed walls, leakage, and draughts. Less energy is required for space heating.

Complete insulation of interior and exterior walls, ceilings, floors, and roofs (aka, the building envelope) stops heat bleeding out via thermal bridging. Single or detached buildings have more to gain due to sporting larger wall surface area.

Vegetation balances volatile ambient temperature changes, while installing modern Heating, Ventilation, and Air Conditioning (HVAC) systems offer regulated heating and cooling.


Lighting constitutes 25% of a building’s total energy use.

Enlarging windows and creating open-plan layouts allows light to flood in. Swapping to energy-saving or LED bulbs is an easy and affordable way to be more energy efficient – the latter offers better quality light plus, as spotlights, they can be flush with ceilings to save space. Blinds and shutters slash bills by replacing the need for artificial, incandescent sources by moderating natural sunlight and shade.

Air quality

Fresh Air Handling Units control indoor air quality facilitating healthier interior environments. Facilitating natural ventilation keeps airflow fresh and tackles build-up of humidity, damp, mould, and bad smells, obliterating the need for troublesome and expensive treatment, or even evacuation.

External component of a domestic heat pump with greenery
Image credit: Unsplash / Kira Porotikova


Energy-efficient heaters and pumps provide hot water at a fraction of the cost of older models. Electric heaters replace noxious gas and oil-burning units. Lagging retains warmth for longer. Rooftop panels can be implemented to harness solar heating.

Channelling rainwater to storage units for repurposing alleviates reliance on inefficient infrastructure; each year, 2.1 trillion gallons (approximately 8 trillion litres) of freshwater is lost to broken and faulty pipes just in the US. Although it is not easy to convert this to drinking water, reclamation can be used for flushing toilets, watering plants, and bathing. Harvesting rain saves up to 40% of water volume.

Managing runoff with sustainable drainage systems and well-planned use of vegetation prevents flooding and resultant costly damage to property. Green roofs and vertical gardens will soak up some of the excess before it even gets to ground level.


Do you hanker for the quiet of lockdown? Trouble getting baby to sleep? Blocking out the racket of the nearby roadworks offers peace of mind and helps concentration. Think retrofit!

Soundproofing with triple glazing keeps out unwanted din (and intruders!) as well as heat in. As more of us are working from home, expect a surge in placing fully fitting doors that offer privacy and quiet. Also handy for a healthy level of segregation in multi-generational or multi-family households.


All-electric buildings are more efficient, fact! Switching from gas- to electricity-driven appliances removes chances of monoxide poisoning and drastically reduces building’s GHG emissions, as can renewable electricity generation through localised solar panels and affixed wind turbines. On-site storage saves additional costs and need for expansive infrastructure.

Smart Technology

Is the hob on? You panic on the ride to work and for the next 8 hours, there’s nothing you can do. Now, appliances controlled remotely add peace of mind and convenience.

Fault sensors minimise energy waste and overall maintenance costs. Smart meters allow occupants to monitor costs accurately in real-time and opt for the most efficient energy choice. Central control systems linked to thermostats maintain constant heating, cooling, and fresh air supply: comfort without effort. Need an introduction to all this tech? Check out our article on innovations and renovations.

Modelling – or a Digital Twin simulation – can determine the pitfalls of a property and how to optimise the most complementary combination of solutions. Ongoing feeds of operational data continuously inform and improve efficiency. Beaming workplace usage stats to colleagues via smartphones offers a level of transparency, holding employers to account – or allowing them to attract a progressive eco-conscious workforce.

Applying just a handful of these measures across Europe could see a 40% drop in the energy consumption of buildings, amounting to a fall of 16% in the continent’s energy bill.

We single out Europe specifically. Climate equity makes it important for richer nations to make drastic advancements, allowing developing nations a larger carbon budget to build much-needed infrastructure, such as hospitals and schools. Retrofitting will help us achieve this seemingly unassailable goal.

Where Next for Retrofitting?

With a climate catastrophe just around the corner, palpable amendments to the way we live could avert disaster. America’s withdrawal from the Paris Agreement in 2017 demonstrates a political bias towards the status quo – pursuing profit over biosphere protection. But it is more than the environment that’s at stake, with human habitation under threat from rising sea levels and an increase in respiratory disease linked to carbon emissions.

Retrofitting provides a way out. Acceptance by administrations the world over will be required to make impactful changes mandatory and get renovations snowballing. The movement has begun. One of the world’s largest world cities is leading the pack: New York’s green deal will commit all buildings in excess of 25,000 square feet to undertake energy retrofits. That’s one in the eye for climate change deniers. But more importantly, in the process of caring for our world, it means we’re going to live healthier, happier lives.

Now you know what retrofits are about, get started in your city with our handy how to.

If any of the terms in this article left you puzzled, they are probably explained in our sustainable buildings glossary.

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