Retrofitting premises protects building heritage sustainably

University of West London’s Nasrin Khanom and Claire Willitts discuss decarbonising existing buildings with a key focus on reducing Scope 1 and 2 emissions

Ageing buildings may not be the most efficient, but they do stand the test of time. There’s something to be said for the longevity that was considered during construction in the 20th Century—or earlier—as the buildings that live today are still appreciated for the history they represent. They are occupied by businesses, colleges, universities, and other organisations, making them highly valuable to society. Knocking them down wouldn’t suffice, so they must be brought into the future. 

Nasrin Khanom, the Head of Environmental Sustainability at the University of West London (UWL), lends a valuable perspective, demonstrating that it’s not only possible, but crucial, to blend historical construction with modern, clean technology. 

We set out to answer the question: ‘Is decarbonising existing buildings a mission impossible?’ 

Much is to be said about the impact of decarbonising construction, but there are ways of reaching this goal; strategies that can be adopted to maintain transparency and deliver true sustainability beyond the 21st Century. This is, of course, the ideal scenario, whereby companies can erect cost-effective buildings in a sustainable way that last longer. But what is to happen to older assets—sites that require updatings to maximise clean energy compliance?

For Khanom, this mission is not impossible, but very challenging in the current landscape with several facets to be considered in the supply chain. In a world where businesses and institutions are under increasing pressure to act and drive down their carbon footprints, clean strategies are adopted to see through the next generation of construction that will adhere to more strenuous conditions. This is not only in response to government regulations and society’s expectations of corporations, but also in alignment with global sustainability targets. 

When we look at protecting building heritage—fragments of history that stand today—the strategy is much the same in terms of how organisations can truly decarbonise them to meet modern ESG requirements. 

Is it as easy as adopting new energy solutions? 

The solutions themselves are crucial in this regard as they must be flexible enough to be tailored to the limitations of existing buildings.  An innovative design ethos is therefore critical to success, whereas in new-build scenarios, design can be purist and therefore much less challenging.  Retrofit does require true innovation and can therefore be leading-edge.  UWL now has the world’s largest combined GSHP and solar PVT system in the world and a Europe’s first accolade for the ASHP system.

But there is more to be said about the approach than simply getting the technologies right. Khanom explains that data is one of the key components of the sustainability strategy, while also noting that it is important to have a comprehensive view of an organisation’s environmental impacts before generating a clean energy strategy.

“Carbon emissions data is a critical component of sustainability efforts. It provides valuable insights into the impact of an organisation’s activities on the environment and helps them make informed decisions to reduce their environmental footprint and promote sustainable practices,” says Khanom. 

In a sense, it seems more beneficial to refer to individual technologies as solutions to key tasks in the overall strategy to achieve efficiency, but branding them as ‘solutions’ for emissions reduction isn’t always so fitting. There is a shift among companies to understand the overall impact of their actions in their wider context. A great way of looking at this is to understand the principle of Scope 3 emissions, which has more emphasis now  that public awareness has risen about the flaws in the majority of supply chains. 

Data can showcase this. Not just any data, but good data. Organisations and institutions, much like UWL, must understand the impacts of their own energy solutions through the businesses that serve them for manufacture, supply and install down to the detail of component and raw material sourcing. The supply chain for energy ‘solutions’ is becoming four-dimensional and true decarbonisation relies on data to make this useful. 

“In an ideal world, organisations would gather all carbon data (operational, embodied, and whole life cycle) to make informed decisions, particularly in relation to investments made to reduce emissions. However, in reality, it requires organisations to invest time and resources in improving data quality to obtain that granularity.  The skills in this area are as important as the skills in the delivery of the technologies themselves, and there is a trade-off between investing in data resources or investing in tangible carbon reduction measures,” says Khanom.

“There are difficult decisions to be made, but the integrity of your green agenda hinges not only on doing the work but on proving its worth and this isn’t possible without the data” says Willitts.

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