Written by Ric Cochrane
Here’s a question for all you PreservationNation readers: What percentage of commercial buildings in the United States are under 50,000 square feet? Answer: 95 percent, a lot more than you might think! So why the trivia question? Many of these smaller buildings are of substantial architectural and cultural importance – yet in the movement to green our nation’s building stock, there’s a danger these places will be left behind. Many current efforts to improve the energy efficiency of commercial buildings are focused on providing financial and technical tools to buildings that are much, much larger in scale. Simply put, as energy prices rise (and most think they will), smaller, older buildings that haven’t been retrofitted will become less and less appealing to own and operate.
Last week, the National Trust’s sustainability program team was in Boulder, Colorado, co-hosting a national workshop on Deep Energy Savings in Existing Buildings. More than 70 national experts gathered to discuss technical strategies, market mechanisms, and policy approaches that will increase energy savings in existing commercial buildings, with emphasis on smaller, older buildings.
The workshop was part of the Getting to 50 project, an initiative to develop tools that will drive energy efficiency improvements of at least 50 percent in existing buildings. Getting to 50 is a partnership with New Buildings Institute (NBI), a national leader in building energy efficiency policy development and implementation, and the National Trust’s Seattle-based Preservation Green Lab.
Workshop participants included national leaders in architecture, engineering, historic preservation, energy efficiency, energy generation, real estate, finance, and policy. Working from the historic Hotel Boulderado (opened on New Year’s Day in 1909), participants first learned about exemplary retrofit projects (many of which included historic buildings) and energy efficiency programs from throughout the country.
The Preservation Green Lab presented our ongoing work to characterize the existing building stock – a key step in helping NBI identify “market clusters” of similar buildings that are most in need of energy retrofits, in order to develop tools that can be applied broadly and eliminate the need for expensive consulting and energy modeling services that are usually required to make decisions about retrofit strategies. Our focus in this characterization work is on buildings that are under-served in the current marketplace, that are culturally valuable or endangered, and that represent a substantial portion of the existing building stock smaller than 50,000 square feet.
For example, our work shows that Main Street style buildings make up almost four percent of the total number of commercial buildings, and that mid-century school buildings make up four percent of gross commercial floor area – this is an important way of segmenting the market to consider both building use and physical characteristics. Further, within these market segments, characteristics are often dramatically different, not only in terms of physical characteristics, but also location, context, ownership patterns, and market influences – and these differences mean that appropriate deep-retrofit strategies may be radically different.
We often hear complaints of a divide between the green building and sustainability world; the clear takeaway from Boulder was a remarkable interest and dedication by both preservationists and those in the energy efficiency field to the cause of preserving and reusing buildings by making them better through deep energy retrofits.
For more information on the Summit at the Getting to 50 project, visit www.newbuildings.org/summit.
Ric Cochrane is a Project Manager at the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Preservation Green Lab.