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Inside Innovation: Technology is teaching old buildings new energy tricks

John Bleasby
Inside Innovation: Technology is teaching old buildings new energy tricks

Mass timber construction, the embedding of captured carbon emissions in concrete and improvements in steel production all address the critical need to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions caused by new construction.

However, according to the World Green Building Council, 28 per cent of global GHG emissions are the result of day-to-day building operations from the existing building inventory.

Former U.S. Vice President Al Gore sees a conflict of interest between project developers on one hand and project owners and their tenants on the other.

“About 20 to 25 per cent of the global warming pollution comes from inefficient buildings that were constructed by companies and individuals trying to be competitive in the marketplace, keep their margins acceptably high, and thereby skimping on insulation, the right windows, LEDs and the rest,” he said in a recent TED Talks interview. “Yet the person or company who buys or leases that building wants their monthly utility bills much lower.”

Using efficiency incentive programs, Gore believes that significant improvements to older buildings can pay for themselves over three to five years.

However, it’s more than simply switching incandescent light bulbs over to LEDs, it requires a whole-building transformation known as a “deep retrofit.”

An example of what can be achieved with an older structure is the iconic Empire State Building in New York City. Taking advantage of an incentive program offered by the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA), the building owners invested in a number of energy efficient improvements in 2010 to both reduce energy demand and to shift loading needs.

The energy management structure is called Real Time Energy Management (RTEM), what the NYSERDA describes as “a cutting-edge technology that transforms the way you manage, consume and buy energy.” RTEM utilizes live and historical data collection, cloud-connected meters, sensors and automated controls.

Extensive work was also undertaken on the building’s envelope and infrastructure, according to the Washington Post. Reflective barriers were installed behind radiators to keep heat inside the shell. Approximately 6,500 windows were refurbished and coated with an additional layer of insulating film, with krypton and argon gas inserted between each pane. Heat management was further improved with blinds that automatically rise or lower based on the sun. The 68 elevators feed energy created through the braking systems back into the building’s grid.

These measures added over US$30 million in costs to other renovations completed at the time, but have ultimately saved tenants an estimated 10 to 20 per cent on annual energy costs, and cut the building’s carbon emissions by 40 per cent over the past 10 years.

As building energy management systems become increasingly sophisticated however, the need arises for a unified approach by industry to avoid siloed solutions.

To this end, an alliance has been formed by four key industry groups, calling itself the IP Building and Lighting Standards, or IP-BLiS. Their mission is to encourage collaboration and co-operation to “educate and influence the market regarding application framework standards over IP for commercial building connectivity through marketing and communications.”

“Some individual building systems still use a wide variety of proprietary solutions that often require separate hardware-based gateways and infrastructures,” IP-BLiS explains on its website. “This fragmentation results in higher costs for planning, installation, maintenance and administration of smart building projects. In addition, synergistic opportunities over the long-term remain unused. In order to overcome these barriers, the members of IP-BLiS intend to combine light control and building management systems with IT networks by using a secure all IP-based configuration while harmonizing the operation of their technical standards accordingly. This will allow data from a wide variety of building systems to be accessible via a single IP address.”

The solution to reducing GHG emissions from the existing building stock rests in a blend of government incentive programs and new technologies linked together through collaborative standards proposed by IP-BLiS. With a reported global building renovation rate of only 0.5 to 1.0 per cent, there is much room for improvement.


John Bleasby is a Coldwater, Ont.-based freelance writer. Send comments and Inside Innovation column ideas to

Recent Comments (1 comments)

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Steve Jones Image Steve Jones

I would like to suggest that anyone interested in improving the performance of buildings with legacy, proprietary building automation system take a look at using our S4 Open Appliances as the enabling technology to cost effectively retrofit and upgrade these systems. Then, define a migration path to open and modern systems.


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