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Commercial Building Retrofits

By Molly Miller

When RMI joined a team developing a plan for a thorough energy efficiency retrofit of the Empire State Building (ESB), the Institute had not yet fully understood how a single iconic project could become both a catalyst and a template for others.

But now, a year after the plans were completed, countless skyscrapers are following in the footsteps of the ESB. It shows that RMI’s work on one special project—with a creative, dedicated team and the right follow-through—can affect energy consumption in an exponential way.

This viral effect is what we’re hoping to achieve with our new Commercial Buildings Retrofit Initiative. Specifically, RMI hopes to spur the retrofit of at least 500 buildings within approximately a five-year lifespan.

RMI is focusing on retrofits because roughly 20 percent of U.S. fossil fuels are used to power, heat, and cool existing commercial buildings; it’s impossible to eliminate the need for fossil fuels without dramatically reducing these buildings’ energy use. The stock turns over slowly, and major overhauls are relatively rare. But the kind of overhaul undertaken at the ESB, called a “deep” retrofit, can substantially improve the average commercial building’s energy efficiency. We designed this initiative to share the techniques, and increase demand for them, as quickly as possible.

RMI will help building owners know what to demand in cost-effective retrofits and offer service providers the right approaches in suitable segments of the U.S. building stock. In collaboration with appropriate and carefully selected marketplace partners, the Institute will create, execute, publicize and accelerate the spread of deep, profitable commercial building retrofits. Replication will be supported by project examples, research directed at breaking down barriers in the marketplace, and targeted outreach.

As we complete the planning for this work, we are asking some questions. How can we have the widest-reaching effect? Can we prove the business case to someone with extensive property holdings? Can our analysis and audit process be speeded up after the first round? What kind of software and training tools can we offer to ensure whole-system solutions are implemented? How can we replicate insightful design solutions beyond the initial projects we tackle? What kind of financing and policy levers can we use to perpetuate our work? Finally, how will we know when we have done enough ourselves, and when we should step aside?

RMI’s work on commercial building retrofits will be complete when we see the “snowballs” that we roll grow and gain speed toward our ultimate goal—retrofitting the entire U.S. commercial building stock to use, on average, 50 percent less energy by 2050.

Molly Miller is a Communications Specialist at RMI.

--Published October 2009
 

 
 
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