Going deep on energy RetroFits

Going deep on energy RetroFits
Whole building

The American organisation Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI) has a strategic initiative named “RetroFit”, and is helping promote ‘Deep Energy Retrofits’ to deliver energy cost savings of 50% or more for commercial buildings. To find out more about the organisation, click on the ‘RetroFit’ tab. To find out more about why RetroFit is different and what they are doing, read on and see what the man running the initiative, Victor Olgyay (VO) has to say.


What criteria need to be met for this type of retrofit?

Deep energy retrofits are a whole-building analysis and construction process that achieves much larger energy cost savings than conventional, simple retrofits and fundamentally enhances the building value.

Victor Olgyay

VO: A building needs to be ready or “ripe” for a retrofit, and you need to be prepared to undergo a comprehensive retrofit and to use integrated design processes to achieve this. A deep energy retrofit looks at everything from thermal to electricity use, including for example plug loads for equipment, which are an important factor in total energy savings. Coordinating analysis with necessary capital expenditures ensure that deep energy retrofits are cost-effective and systematic, in that they look at all possible elements of a retrofit. Most building retrofits realise energy savings somewhere between 8-20%, typically with a 3-5 year payback. A deep energy retrofit will better that with savings of 30% - and often 50% or more with similar paybacks - and additional scheduled measures to further improve performance that can be implemented over several years.

How important a factor is comfort and indoor climate?

VO: Comfort is a critical factor. Here at RMI, we want to make better quality buildings. Really, what we are providing are better quality buildings, rather than only low carbon buildings, healthy buildings, or other measures. Take the Empire State Building as an example of a building that moved from Class B to Class A – that translates into greatly improved market value. For RetroFit, our driver is to help deliver a good design that leads to a better performance and a better quality building – a more valuable asset.

Designing space

According to Victor Olgyay, the space people work in in commercial buildings should always be the starting point for any deep energy retrofit. The first question to ask is: What is the actual need for this space, what do the people working here require? In his experience, the answer might not always be to replace equipment or windows: It could just as well be a redesign or reprogramming of the space.

Is your goal always to maximise energy savings for the retrofitted building?

VO: RMI focuses on the most cost-effective way of improving buildings and their energy efficiency. RetroFit provides examples of how to strategically invest in buildings to provide a good return on investment. Typically efficiency is the first aspect that we optimise. Incidentally, this is still vastly under-utilised as the most cost effective strategy – it’s rarely fully used. But we will also look at the other available aspects. What we are doing is teaching people about all the opportunities available.

"A deep energy retrofit will often look at reducing loads by making improvements to the building envelope and windows and the like. That will in turn drive loads down and then you can look at right-sizing equipment, but now based on an efficient building. This will also save on capital costs for replacing equipment."

Victor Olgyay

Would that include ‘right-sizing’ HVAC and other equipment?

VO: It is critically important that you make sure the design is appropriate for the requirements. Over-sizing is common because designers are often trying to cover their backs and make sure that systems deliver under all conditions. One way to tackle this is to ensure that things are done in the right order, for example provide efficiency before sizing HVAC. It is also critical to do enough analysis to appropriately size equipment, rather than rely on standardised practice that does not adequately consider high efficiency measures.

Typically, a deep energy retrofit would make recommendations that bundle measures wherever possible. If, for example, the HVAC equipment is at or near end-of-life, you have an opportunity to also address other aspects of the building, such as reducing loads by improving the building envelope before sizing replacement HVAC. By bundling measures, and accounting for the integrated savings, greater energy savings can be achieved.

What role do energy audits play?

VO: They provide important baseline input. It made sense to carry out a very comprehensive energy audit on the Empire State Building because of its complexity, which was one of the projects we worked on. But with smaller buildings, a smaller audit can make sense. It is also possible to carry out a ‘no touch’ energy audit using software that infers energy efficiency measures based on patterns found by analysing energy bills. Many tools are available to build a baseline for energy usage.

Replacing motors in pumps and other equipment can provide significant energy savings. Would such measures always be part of a deep energy retrofit?

VO: Usually. A typical deep energy retrofit will yield a ‘Top 10’ list of measures. Measures such as replacing equipment with more efficient equipment, such as lighting and variable speed drives would often be included on that list.

Tenants and managers

Victor Olgyay and RetroFit have been involved in major retrofit projects including the Empire State Building (103 floors, 2.85 million square feet of rentable space) and the Indianapolis City Council Building (28 stories, gross area 731,119 square feet). One important aspect of these projects has been the importance of taking the role of tenants into account.

Are tenants open to deep energy retrofits?

VO: They are an important element. If you look at a project like the Empire State Building retrofit, we ended up with a list of eight energy-efficient measures and four of these had to be implemented in tenant spaces. So to get all the available savings, tenants have to be taken into account and you need to get them on board. For tenants, the building is a place to do business. It is important that retrofit work does not disturb their business, or that any disturbance is minimised. We have put together a guide for tenants to provide the tools that will assist in getting them on board for deep energy retrofits. This information can be accessed here.

Another possible barrier is that you can have a split incentive. That is the owner of the building may not be interested in retrofitting because the tenant is the one paying the bills. That is also something that RMI and the RetroFit initiative address with comprehensive information and tools.

How important are Facility Managers in the process?

VO: Again, this is critical. In the real world, buildings are rarely operated optimally. RMI recognises that this is an area where training is vital, and we provide education and training for owners, engineers and other service providers as part of our initiative. We work with the General Services Administration (GSA), the U.S. Government Agency that operates government buildings on training programmes and implementing the use of Energy Savings Performance Contracts (ESPCs). The GSA has a Facility Manager training institute that addresses this issue directly.

Facility Managers are often just expected to keep the building running and avoid complaints from users. We need to introduce tools and opportunities that highlight the importance of energy efficiency, and incentivise the rewards for saving energy.


The RetroFit Depot focuses on catalysing deep energy retrofits across the U.S. commercial building stock. Tools and guides are freely available online here

A deep energy retrofit typically involves three stages:

• Building the case: Planning and quantifying the value of deep energy retrofits in individual buildings for owners, investors and occupiers, based on the unique circumstances of the building

• Managing deep energy retrofits: The key components of the process, focusing on limiting cost premiums, enabling risk management and creating maximum value

• Identifying design opportunities: Providing instructions for identifying opportunities to reduce energy consumption by end-use.

The RetroFit approach also provides extensive information on specifying the triggers for a deep energy retrofit by determining the ideal situations for performing a whole-building analysis. This could, for example, be at the change of tenancy, change of ownership, or near the end of life of HVAC and other equipment.

The Rocky Mountain Institute is an organisation dedicated to research, publication and consulting in the field of sustainability, with special focus on the field of energy and resource efficiency. Rocky Mountain Institute works towards the efficient and restorative use of resources through practical market driven transformation. The organisation was established in 1982 and remains an independent entrepreneurial non-profit institute. RetroFit is one of the institute’s initiatives implementing the concept Reinventing Fire - a roadmap for developing an economy free of coal and petroleum by 2050. The RetroFit initiative addresses the existing buildings segment of this effort.

Victor Olgyay, AIA
Victor Olgyay is a registered architect and directs the RMI’s buildings practice. He has a wide-range of experience spanning architectural design, research and planning. Victor Olgyay holds a Master of Architecture from MIT and has also been Associate Professor and Director of Research at University of Hawaii School of Architecture.

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