Aging Buildings and the Climate Emergency: Opportunity Knocks!

Great opportunities arise when several trends converge in a way that creates possibilities that would otherwise not exist. One such convergence of trends is the aging stock of commercial and institutional buildings in need of capital reinvestment, the growing urgency of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and the remarkable advancement in recent years of the design approaches and technologies available for building energy efficiency and electrification.

Working at the intersection of these three trends and focusing on the inventory of Canadian government buildings in Canada’s capital, SSG, whatIf? Technologies, and the Rocky Mountain Institute found that strategic investments in aging buildings can significantly reduce their carbon footprint while significantly cutting energy costs and creating thousands of jobs.

The majority of the 2,200 Canadian government buildings in the Ottawa area are over four decades old. Wrapping strategic energy efficiency retrofits, renewable energy, and district energy systems into planned upgrades offer a historic opportunity for climate action and renewal.

Trend #1: The aging stock of federal buildings

The age profile of federal buildings in the Ottawa area typifies much of the commercial and institutional building stock throughout North America. Fully 70% of the portfolio is over 40 years old; more floor space was added in the 1970s than in all the decades since.

These buildings are due for renewal; indeed, budget pressures have resulted in inadequate maintenance investments over the years, and over 40% of the federal building inventory is in poor or critical condition. Another 22% is in fair condition. Even for those buildings kept in reasonable condition, advancements in building science and technology have rendered critical systems obsolete. Their interior designs and layouts are misaligned with the needs of a modern office working environment and the much greater role of advanced information technologies in the delivery of government services in the 21st century.

The aging inventory of federal buildings. 

Trend #2:  Government commitments to eliminate greenhouse gas emissions

The needed renewal of the buildings coincides with a commitment by the government to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from its own operations by 80%. If the Canadian government adopts the carbon budget under consideration, it would have  an even more challenging target: zero emissions by the mid 2030s.

Emissions from federal operations in the National Capital Region. 

In the National Capital Region (NCR), 98% of emissions from the government‚Äôs operations come from building energy use‚ÄĒmostly natural gas for heating‚ÄĒso the emission reduction commitment translates directly into a target to virtually eliminate natural gas consumption. To meet the emission reduction commitment, the impending recapitalization of federal real estate in the NCR must transform the buildings into high efficiency, high performance spaces with zero or very low emissions, including the emissions associated with their electricity use.

Trend #3: Advancing building science and technology.

The science, engineering, and related technologies that are being applied in buildings today would be hardly recognizable to a visitor from the 1970s.  Most of the federal building stock in the NCR predates the invention of the personal computer, never mind the advanced digital sensor and control technologies that are now routinely used to replace overdesign and inefficiencies with precision, efficiency, and superior comfort and building performance. Ironically, it may be that the backlog of deferred maintenance of the federal building stock actually represents an advantage: the government can leapfrog intermediate generations of technology with retrofits to create the low-carbon buildings of the future.

LED lighting systems, high performance windows, air-to-air cold climate heat pumps, electronically commutated high efficiency fan and pump motors, advanced energy flywheels and other heat recovery technologies‚ÄĒthese are just some examples of the tsunami of technological innovation that has swept through the building sector in recent years. When combined with deep cost reductions in sensors and digitized control technologies, the recapitalization of old buildings can create healthier, more productive space that no longer relies on antiquated fossil fuel combustion technologies.

Electrification is the key to efficiency, including by switching current electric resistance heating to heat pump technology. Modern, electric-powered technologies are dramatically more efficient than their predecessors or their combustion-based alternatives. In a deep building retrofit, these efficiency gains can drive reductions in power consumption that are sometimes larger than the additional electricity required to switch from natural gas to heat pumps. By combining building energy efficiency and electrification, the decarbonization of commercial and institutional buildings can facilitate grid decarbonization.

The Opportunity: Better buildings and zero emissions through modernization

In a classic example of the whole being greater than the sum of the parts, the SSG/RMI Roadmap to Low-Carbon Operations in the National Capital Region shows how an integrated, whole-building approach to the renewal of federal buildings can result in better buildings that are fossil fuel-free and have lower aggregate electricity consumption than they do today. While the mix of technologies and the energy and emissions outcomes vary from one building to the next, we found that aggregate electricity consumption could be reduced by 25% or more, even as the gas-heated stock is electrified. This is the opportunity created by the convergence of an aging stock, a climate change imperative, and a new generation of building technologies that have transformed the art of the possible.

The convergence of these trends has created an opportunity for the Government of Canada to implement a building decarbonization strategy with a strongly positive economic outcome.¬† The recommended scenario incorporates deep energy retrofits into 3.9 million square metres of existing government buildings. Compared to the business-as-usual energy-related equipment costs of $4.0 billion, the incremental cost of the retrofit technologies is $1.3 billion, most of which is returned in the form of a billion dollars in fuel and electricity savings. In addition, converting older buildings to more efficient, healthier indoor spaces directly and measurably improves employee well-being productivity worth more than the corresponding fuel and electricity savings. Add in the 50,000+ person-years of direct employment that the government’s investment would generate in the local economy, the avoided social costs of carbon, the reputational benefits to the Government of Canada, the reduced public health costs, and the social capital benefits to the community, and the economic case is open and shut.

The Roadmap shows how the government‚Äôs offices can be replaced with dynamic¬†spaces and flexible work arrangements that make its employees healthier and happier. It is a blueprint for creating spaces with better ventilation and temperature controls, all of which enhance focus, productivity, and efficiency. By choosing the path of carbon neutrality, the Canadian government can become a model. It can show all kinds of organizations‚ÄĒfrom municipal governments to large corporations to other countries‚ÄĒthat addressing the climate crisis is about so much more than reducing greenhouse gas emissions. It is an opportunity to build vibrant, healthy, and resilient communities. It is a chance to step onto the best path for our future.

For more insights on how to build a carbon-free future, sign up for the monthly SSG Newswire and updates from the Rocky Mountain Institute’s Carbon-Free Buildings Team.

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Ralph Torrie is a Senior Consultant at SSG and an internationally recognized expert in the field of sustainable energy and climate change response strategies for governments and business.