Construction and Sustainability: Business opportunities and policy support for building retrofitting

4 minute read

Italian version

A recent New York Times article reports how, in the city of New York, a pioneer project called Casa Pasiva is aiming to invest 20 millions of dollars to upgrade nine buildings’ energy efficiency performance in 2021.

This is a serious instance of building retrofitting, and it could pave the way for more to come in the near future. As shown below, this is a growing practice which could seriously decrease CO2 emissions in the atmosphere while creating significant business opportunities and avoiding the pashing-out of existing industries. The intervention usually entails core changes to buildings’ heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) systems, interior pipes and exterior facades. 

Ambitious projects like Casa Pasiva constitute a cornerstone in the practice of embedding sustainability in our everyday life, that of building retrofitting, defined by The United States Green Building Council (USGBC) as “any type of upgrade at an existing building (…) to improve energy and environmental performance, reduce water use, improve comfort and quality of space in terms of natural lighting, air quality and noise, all done in a way that it is financially beneficial to the owner”.

The growth of this trend is justified by recent data from the International Energy Agency (IEA), which show that energy-related CO2 emissions from buildings have risen in recent years, recording an all-time high in 2019. As explained by the IEA, this is due to an increase in the demand of electricity cooling, which is in turn driven by extreme heat phenomena. In fact, up to 29 countries in the Northern Hemisphere broke all-time records during the 2019 summer heat wave. It is easy to notice that, as humans naturally react and adapt to instances of climate change phenomena such as extreme heat waves, the current state of technological development of buildings’ energy systems bring more harm than good.

A solution may be found in the practice of building retrofitting. Although new buildings need to satisfy all sustainability requirements, policy-makers should focus on existing buildings and their energy efficiency. In fact, around 70% of Europe’s buildings in 2050 will incorporate buildings that exists today. As stated by John Dulac, analyst at the IEA, building retrofitting policies do not only ensure that future CO2 emissions are significantly reduced, they also constitute a way of creating business opportunities. As noted by a Urban Green Council report, if all buildings chose to meet the carbon caps in New York City alone, the quantifiable market expansion would lie somewhere between $16.6B and $24.3B, with up to 141,000 jobs created.

As the scholarly community has been paying more and more attention to this theme, decision-makers are becoming aware of the potential environmental and economic benefits building retrofitting offers. The publicly announced “Plan to build a modern, sustainable infrastructure” by U.S.A. President-Elect Joe Biden is clear in this sense. Specifically, itaims to upgrade 4 million buildings and weatherize 2 million homes over the 4 years mandate.

Moreover, the newly announced European Green Deal (EGD) seeks to create a carbon neutral economic model for the European Union by 2050. It reports that buildings account for 40% of total energy consumed, and pinpoints to building retrofitting as a source both of increased energy efficiency and, as a result of it, increased energy affordability. Therefore, it is argued in the EGD, such market expansion is desirable not only as a way of tackling issues of energy efficiency and poverty, but it also constitutes an opportunity to support local construction jobs and small-to-medium.

In the words of Arup’s Carbon and Climate Change Director Paula Kirk, building retrofitting has always been categorized as “hard-to-do” because of the fragmented nature of existing buildings ownership, but it is expected that the EGD will create a unified framework under which to operate, thus bringing about the necessary market shift for all the different involved parties. 

In other words, envisioning an ever-sustainable world requires a much deeper effort than it initially seems. Taking the example of sustainable buildings, if we are serious about controlling our CO2 emissions in the next decades, a significant amount of effort must be devoted to building retrofitting.

By Luca Bisio

Sources: (2021). The EU Green Deal and building retrofits: making it work for everyone. [online] Available at: [Accessed 22 March 2021]

BBC News. 2021. Hundreds of temperature records broken over summer. [online] Available at: [Accessed 22 March 2021]. 2021. CORDIS European Commission. [online] Available at: [Accessed 22 March 2021].

European Commission, 2019. The European Green Deal. Brussels.

IEA (2020), Tracking Buildings 2020, IEA, Paris

Jagarajan, R., Abdullah Mohd Asmoni, M., Mohammed, A., Jaafar, M., Lee Yim Mei, J. and Baba, M. (2017). Green retrofitting – A review of current status, implementations and challenges. Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews, 67, pp.1360-1368. (2021). New York’s Real Climate Challenge: Fixing Its Aging Buildings. [online] Available at: [Accessed 22 March 2021].

Joe Biden for President: Official Campaign Website (2021). The Biden Plan to Build a Modern, Sustainable Infrastructure and an Equitable Clean Energy Future Joe Biden for President: Official Campaign Website. [online] Available at: [Accessed 22 March 2021].

Urban Green Council (2019). Retrofit Market Analysis. [online] Available at: [Accessed 22 March 2021].

image credits:

Milan, Bosco Verticale

photo by: Samuele Schiatti