Addressing Energy Consumption in Older and Historic Buildings

How can you tell if a commercial building is inefficient? In New York City, you’ll now know as soon as you walk through the door.

At the start of this year, a new rule went into effect requiring multifamily, nonresidential and public or government buildings greater than 25,000 square feet to post an A-F letter grade based on the building’s Energy Star score. Late last year, New York magazine took stock of 50 of the most recognizable properties in the city—just four of them received an “A” rating, and the majority fell into the “D” category.

The new system speaks to the urgency with which New York officials are taking on energy efficiency and sustainability, and are just a precursor for what’s on the horizon. Per New York magazine:

If the grades seem harsh, that’s on purpose: They’re intentionally stringent, a sort of name-and-shame policy to encourage energy-efficient retrofits. Whether New York’s buildings can be chastised into better behavior remains an open question. But the grades are really just a step on the way to stricter rules, with a mandate for building owners to cut their emissions by 40 percent by 2030; they’ll have to start taking steps toward that goal by 2024. Either way, as Department of Buildings Commissioner Melanie La Roca put it, the grades are a tool to give New Yorkers a clearer picture of where building owners stand when it comes to building a more environmentally friendly city.

While building owners in New York might be facing the most immediate regulatory consequences, the quest for greater sustainability in all types of buildings is happening everywhere. Buildings use up about 40 percent of all energy produced in the U.S., making them a prime opportunity for society to reduce its collective energy consumption and curb emissions.

Glass and glazing, of course, play an important role in creating a more efficient building envelope. And, as evidenced by the situation in New York, I expect there to be increasing opportunity in major window and glass improvement and retrofit projects in the years to come; all of those “D” rated buildings will have some catching up to do, after all. Another example: As USGlass recently recapped, the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA), which owns and leases thousands of historic properties across the country, will roll out the 2021 version of its standards in the coming months. With a sharp focus on building efficiency, some of these structures will need high-performance fenestration improvements to stay up to standard.

As energy requirements grow more stringent for all buildings, older and historic structures present an interesting challenge. Our industry has long been tasked with delivering increasingly high performance while simultaneously meeting the needs of modern architecture and design in new structures. The task in historic structures is the inverse: We must be able to deliver performance without disrupting the aesthetic integrity of an existing, culturally significant building.

As in everything we do, this requires some creativity and the right mix of high-performance products. For example, outright window replacement may not always be desirable when seeking to maintain historic integrity. But oftentimes, higher-performance glazing can be created using what’s already there—a single-pane window can be transformed/renovated into a double- or even triple-paned unit with the right technology, while low-E coatings can drive performance even further. Spacer selection is critical here—the right product will help maintain long-term performance. And in older (if not truly historic) structures, full window replacement utilizing high-performance framing and glazing technologies can be an effective way to maximize total building efficiency.

New York won’t be the only location seeking to retroactively improve the efficiency of its older buildings in the coming years. Our industry will be tasked with bringing the right solutions to these projects—and I’m confident in our ability to do just that.