Small to medium sized buildings make up the vast majority of buildings and account for a large proportion of the floor space. Many existing buildings, both commercial and residential, are inadequately insulated, use outdated, inefficient HVAC technologies, and have poorly functioning control systems — or none at all. Others have never been recommissioned for drift from design parameters or changed building use. This poses a pressing renovation need, notes BSRIA, and also a host of new business opportunities.

The key issues are:

• The challenges to the effective retrofit of buildings rest not just on technology but also on finance, levels of skill and understanding, and the psychology and behavior of building owners and users, and on the social and legislative environment in which they exist.

• Those companies who are active in the retrofit market need to take account of all of these if they are to offer services that will prove attractive to the client, profitable for them, and beneficial to the environment.

• Some of the requirements, such as the need for improved understanding and qualifications, go beyond the reach of the individual supplier, and will require a degree of cooperation with other industry players, and potentially with public authorities, to achieve these goals.

Responding to this, BSRIA held its fourth executive Diamond Group discussion in a year. Using the 2016 AHR Expo as the venue, the event was by invitation only and involved 34 senior personnel from major players in the industry.

The majority of participants were from North America and so it may be assumed that the findings presented have a North American slant or bias even when they discuss issues of international relevance. Each group was asked to address the key questions below. It is important to stress that the conclusions expressed here represent those of the five discussion groups and not necessarily the views of BSRIA.


Drivers and objectives for refurbishment and retrofit

Julia Evans, chief executive, BSRIA, said: “In North America there tends to be a more ruthless attitude towards older buildings than in Europe, unless they are protected. Hence, rather than refurbish buildings, it is quite common practice to demolish old premises and build new on the same site.

“The first and most important criterion is user comfort, closely followed by productivity. When building users begin to complain about the level of comfort, the building owner is prompted to refurbish. However, although users may complain about discomfort, they typically do not want to pay for the refurbishment. In contrast, the building owner will rarely choose to refurbish the building before any deterioration starts costing him or her money. Interestingly, it was the demand for an enhanced level of comfort that was emphasized as the principal driver for refurbishment, rather than the energy bill, though more energy efficient solutions are sought. 

“For the owner or developer, the key objective is to make the building saleable or rentable. Providing effective HVAC is a principal concern and customers want easy, hassle-free, and risk-free solutions.”

Life cycle costing

Life cycle costing is often cited as a panacea for many building ills. However, while life cycle costing offers benefits, it often sits uncomfortably with existing habits, traditions, or priorities, which still tend to attach a lot of weight to the initial “upfront” cost, as opposed to the longer term benefit. There is also a need to get over the three-year payback constraint if life cycle costing is to be taken seriously. New solutions, like VRF (variable refrigerant flow), are increasingly analyzed on the basis of life cycle costing, but for the true implementation of such a practice a change of culture is needed.


Packaged equipment is an attractive solution for one- to two-story buildings and rooftops will often be used for retail buildings. Customers are frequently choosing to retrofit using new products such as VRF systems, as well as with more advanced chillers. These can be combined with more energy-efficient devices, such as magnetic compressors. VRF controls are becoming more sophisticated and will include multi-zone solutions and connection to the cloud.

Where boilers are used, the condensing type is taking market share from the non-condensing type. Traditional technologies in air conditioning will remain but their degree of connectivity and operational functions will evolve.

Systems need to become better at registering human behavior and responding to this, for example, through automatic adjustment of their settings, and also by making it easy for users to input their preferences. This needs to be combined with systems that are capable of modulating their control signals in a more subtle and gradual way, rather than simply cutting in or out. This will result in control solutions that are more refined.

Wireless communications are becoming very popular but soon they will not be considered a differentiator as all companies will offer wireless solutions. Nevertheless, they are well suited to building retrofits.

Although new innovations will continue to come along, there are plenty of existing, even traditional products, from simple thermostats all the way to more advanced chillers that provide cost-effective solutions when correctly applied. Efficiency can then be improved by equipping these traditional products with more energy-efficient components. A significant advantage of such an approach is that contractors, maintenance, and facility management companies are already familiar with the existing solutions.


Weak or lack of regulation or legislation

As far as the U.S. is concerned, the regulations that exist are patchy and often weak. In general, legislation is lagging behind although there are some signs of change. A few states, such as California and New York, are leading the way. Legislation is expected to be an important factor in the integration of renewables, energy storage, and back-up power generation for buildings. But until there is substantial change in terms of legislation, there is little ‘push’ for building owners to do more than implied by purely financial concerns.

Demand for quick ROI

A significant barrier exists in that demand for a quick return on investment (ROI) conflicts with life cycle models. Achieving a three-year payback is a challenge for some investments, and in the commercial sector, emphasis tends to be on the immediate balance sheet impact. Whether the end user is a tenant or an owner will make a difference as to whether they invest, and lack of finance for investments can also present a problem.

Skills and understanding

Evans added, “There are issues around the availability of skills and understanding at all levels. Designers, contractors, clients, facility managers, and operators all need a better understanding of the factors and processes that impact on building efficiency. The much vaunted ‘performance gap’ between a building’s specification and its measured performance often derives from this lack of understanding.

“Getting a skilled workforce in place to service and support the retrofit of mid-size buildings is a challenge. There is a need for better and more widely used and recognized qualifications, certifications, and training from the specialist right down to the routine ‘front desk’ role. A common language across the trades and applications is required.

“Attracting the younger generation is a key challenge for our industry. Not only must the industry be shown to be more than just a ‘dirty building site,’ it must be made far more accessible through targeted marketing and pathways to the trades, such as apprenticeships and links to educational facilities.”

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Publication date: 4/18/2016