4 ways to improve a building’s energy efficiency through retrofitting

Megan Wild
Megan Wild | 6 min. read
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Published on April 12, 2018

Improving a building’s energy performance not only has benefits for its property owners and residents—it also has a positive impact on our environment and public health as a whole, especially since buildings consume 73 percent of the energy we use in the U.S.

When you use energy more efficiently, you reduce utility costs. If your property owners pay the energy bill, this will reduce their monthly costs substantially. If residents pay for their energy use, it’ll make living there more attractive to them. It can also mean that you’ll have to replace appliances less often, which saves your owners even more money.

Monitoring your building’s energy usage should be a critical part of your strategy for saving money and enhancing the properties you manage. The good news is that you don’t have to tear down each building and start over. Instead, you can retrofit the one that you have, making changes that are as subtle or as extensive as your owners want.

So, is retrofitting buildings to improve energy efficiency effective? Here are 4 approaches to reduce the energy usage of existing residences.

#1: Stop Air from Escaping

In many buildings, substantial amounts of air (which you’ve already spent energy heating or cooling) escapes into the outdoors. It sneaks out of small cracks and openings, increasing your heating and cooling costs.

By conducting an energy audit, you can determine where air might be leaking out of your building. You can conduct a simple visual inspection or a more in-depth examination, such as a blower door test.

Once you know where you’re losing air, you can seal and insulate those leaks. Common problem areas include attics, basements, vents, and windows, and doors. You can also cover windows with heat-shrink plastic wrap to stop air from escaping.

These fixes are relatively inexpensive and will likely pay for themselves over time through energy savings. Sealing leaks also provides other benefits, such as improved humidity control and fewer opportunities for insects and allergens (like pollen) to make their way inside.

#2: Save with Upgraded Appliances

Another relatively simple way to retrofit your property for energy savings is by upgrading appliances and fixtures to more energy-efficient models. When you’re ready to replace your refrigerator, washer and dryer, water heater, or other appliance, look for the ENERGY STAR label—a surefire sign that a product is energy-efficient.

You can also replace smaller fixtures, such as light bulbs, for savings that will add up over time. An ENERGY STAR-certified bulb uses 90 percent less energy than other bulbs and last 15 to 25 times as long, reducing energy costs and the frequency with which you have to buy lightbulbs.

Next time that a bulb burns out, consider replacing it with an LED one with an ENERGY STAR label. You could also install dimmers and smart sensors that turn lighting on and off at certain times of the day, or switch them on if they detect motion.

#3: Redesign with Energy in Mind

If your owners decide to make a larger-scale investment in energy performance upgrades, they’ll be rewarded with more extensive benefits. While no- and low-cost energy measures can lead to savings of up to 15 percent, deep retrofitting can reduce energy costs by as much as 45 percent.

Some of these larger upgrades include replacing old windows and doors with insulated models, installing exterior insulation, and adding green roofs.

While sealing doors and windows is beneficial, a more comprehensive solution is replacing them with insulated, triple-pane options, which let very little air escape.

You can further improve your structure’s thermal resistance by adding exterior insulation. Instead of only adding insulation where you find leaks, you can add insulating materials (such as expanded polystyrene) to the outside of the building. This material is durable, has a low water absorption rate, and enables you to improve insulation without constraints like wall thickness.

#4: Incorporate Green Building Design Principles

There are several types of green buildings that are gaining popularity among builders, property owners, and occupants. You can design a new building or remodel an existing one to fit these styles, or you can incorporate aspects of each style into your current buildings through retrofitting. These building types include passive houses, LEED-certified buildings, and zero energy buildings.

Passive House

The concept of a super-insulated house originated in the U.S. in the 1970s. German engineers built upon this idea and created the Passivhaus.

A passive house has continuous insulation, no thermal bridging, and extreme resistance to air penetration; as well as a heat- and moisture-recovery air exchange system. The house is also positioned and designed to use natural means, such as sunlight, to heat and cool itself.


The Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification and rating system from the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) provides verification that your building is eco-friendly and energy-efficient. Having this certification will increase a building’s worth and appeal, and following these principles will reduce energy bills significantly.

The LEED system consists of four rating levels: Certified, silver, gold, and platinum. USGBC evaluates buildings in nine categories:

  1. Integrative process
  2. Location and transportation
  3. Sustainable sites
  4. Water efficiency
  5. Energy and atmosphere
  6. Materials and resources
  7. Indoor environmental quality
  8. Innovation
  9. Regional priority

Zero Energy Buildings

A Zero Energy Building produces as much energy as it consumes; and uses renewable energy such as solar, wind, or geothermal power rather than fossil fuels or nuclear power. The Living Future Institute administers the Zero Energy Building Certification as well as other certification programs.

Learn how to retrofit the properties you manage to improve energy efficiency on the #BuildiumBlog. Click To Tweet

Old buildings, as it turns out, can learn new tricks. You can retrofit your properties to whatever degree you prefer to have improved energy performance; which will reduce energy costs, improve your building’s worth, and attract more occupants.

Which retrofitting projects have you undertaken to improve the energy performance of your buildings, and how did they turn out? Which projects are you considering? Let us know in the comments section below!

Read more on Maintenance & Improvements
Megan Wild

Megan is a freelance writer who specializes in real estate, home improvement, and coffee consumption. Follow her on Twitter @Megan_Wild, or subscribe to Your Wild Home's weekly newsletter.

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