New guidance on retrofitting large offices finds missed opportunities for energy saving

The UK Green Building Council (UKGBC) has launched new guidance on retrofitting large office buildings, which it says reframes retrofit as an iterative process rather than as a standalone project.

The council said it has found that ‘significant opportunities’ are being missed by office investors, owners, and occupiers who do not have clear retrofit strategies in place. It warned that 77% of UK office stock currently has an energy performance certificate (EPC) rating below B and is anticipated to be unlettable by 2030.

UKGBC found that building owners and operators were missing the easy wins of low cost, low disruption measures that reduce energy consumption, and at the same time were missing key “trigger points” in lease and maintenance cycles that will facilitate easier, more efficient retrofit.

A key conclusion was that the office sector needs to cut energy consumption by 59% by 2050 if it is to meet the carbon trajectory it sets out in its previously published whole life carbon roadmap.

It concluded:

Commercial buildings are not currently being retrofitted at the pace or scale necessary, risking the UK not meeting critical net zero milestones. Without action, many owners will be left vulnerable to stranded assets, as market demand for sustainable space grows and minimum energy efficiency standards (MEES) tighten.

UKGBC said its report shows that ‘deep retrofit’ is generally required to achieve deep cuts in operational energy use (60-65%); to transition building systems away from fossil fuels; and to meet best practice 2030-2035 energy performance targets for offices.

However, significant reductions in operational energy use are also possible through optimisation (achieving reductions of up to 26%) and through light retrofit (15% reduction), It added that taking intermediate steps can mean deep retrofits can later be carried out more swiftly, with less extensive works.

The Council warned that a lack of clarity from government around MEES deadlines has led to hesitancy or delay among some investors and owners, but stressed that for policy drivers to be effective in reducing operational carbon emissions, a performance-based policy framework is required, rather than relying on EPCs, which do not reflect actual energy use.

This would also encourage energy optimisation, which depends on continued collaboration, monitoring and sharing of data between landlords and occupiers, it said.

Yetunde Abdul, Head of Climate Action at UKGBC, said:

Retrofitting our commercial buildings is critical to achieving our net zero carbon goals. The scale of the challenge and the rate of decarbonisation needed means ambitions need to be redoubled, without overlooking the easy wins. If all stakeholders are prepared to collaborate and be transparent, there is huge long-term environmental, social and economic value to be secured.

The council also expressed concern that the depth and scale of retrofit can be limited by planning and heritage concerns and called for an appropriate balance is required to encourage retrofit. UKGBC also called for mandatory measurement and reporting of whole life carbon for major projects, to support evidence-based decision-making and demonstrate the carbon savings of retrofit over newbuild.

UKGBC said its new guidance has been informed by live data and insights shared by a task group of industry experts, and the report includes a range of real-world case studies ‘that provide practical examples of retrofit strategies, and tangible outcomes across arrange of metrics including operational energy performance, whole life carbon emissions and projected returns on investment, as well as health, wellbeing and social value.’