Historic Building Retrofit Performs Better Than New Buildings

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Originally published on RMI Outlet.
By Jennifer Cole

blog_09_23_15-1bThe Byron Rogers building, located in downtown Denver and owned by the U.S. General Services Administration, is a model of how deep energy retrofits can create more efficient, financially valuable, and more productive workspaces.

The anticipated building energy use savings when compared to ASHRAE 90.1 2007 is expected to be 55 percent, which equates to approximately $500,000 per year in savings. Many of the strategies developed and implemented laid the groundwork toward the 2030 net-zero benchmarks. Now that the building is fully occupied, these savings can be verified. The building uses several leading edge and synergistic energy conservation measures, including chilled beams, a thermal storage system, superinsulated walls and windows, and LED’s.

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The Human Behavioral Aspect

The Social and Behavioral Sciences research team at the White House just issued its first annual report on effective messaging and behavioral motivation, applying behavioral research to relevant governmental issues such as how to improve rates of enrollment in a 401(k)-like plan for federal workers.

“We think that government programs work best, and Americans are best served, when [the programs] are easy to access and when program information is presented clearly. I think the critical thing that behavioral sciences teaches us is that when programs are not designed in this way, the consequences for Americans [are] much larger than we might think,” Maya Shankar, chair of the research team, told NPR.

The importance of the behavioral science perspective was also clear to the project team that completed the Byron G. Rogers retrofit, as successful tenant and building manager engagement was critical to the project’s outstanding success. No efficient building or piece of technology will function optimally unless tenants properly operate it. “Tenant education is key on major building upgrades because change can be difficult,” explains Jessica Higgins, of the GSA. “In this case, we had an opportunity to educate our customers about the building’s high performance features and how they can make a difference.”

Interestingly, at first the GSA had trouble inspiring tenants to agree to come back to the building after the retrofit. Moving out initially for the renovation required a great deal of effort on their part, and some of them were unwilling to move back. However, it was encouraging when potential tenants realized that the building would be a much more efficient, productive space.

One of the key goals of the project was to improve the experience of those occupying the space and to bring flexibility and comfort within the building.

Courtney Hoskins, the Aging Services Program Specialist of Health and Human services, boasts, “I’ve worked in the Byron G. Rogers building for more than 20 years. I wasn’t sure what to expect moving back into the old federal building. But I have been pleasantly surprised how I’ve been able to increase my overall well-being by taking advantage of the new gym, healthy food options, and more natural daylight. Also, overall agency productivity has increased greatly by having our agency partners co-located in the same building.”

Effective communication about the benefits of working in a highly efficient space and the reduction in environmental footprint was useful to convince the tenants to return.


Another important element was teaching building occupants about the space and how to use it. The level of conditioned air moving through the space met ventilation requirements but was much lower than a traditional office since the actual space heating and cooling is provided by the chilled beam system. Lower amounts of moving air in the space caused some tenants to find the space too hot, despite a reasonable air temperature. Additionally, the lack of noise that air conditioning systems usually produce made the building extremely quiet. Tenants were educated on these intricacies of the space-conditioning system and an acoustic consultant was involved to address white noise to make up for the lack of air conditioning noise.

Careful attention was paid to educating building managers on space conditioning—ramping up or down a chilled beam system is not possible at the same rate as a typical forced-air cooling system.

The design-build contractor and subcontractors provided and videotaped training sessions of all building systems for the building management staff. Refresher courses were conducted several months after occupancy to familiarize current and new O&M staff. During the second round of training the manufacturer representatives and subcontractors assisted O&M staff with issue resolution.

Providing O&M staff with a step-by-step tutorial of troubleshooting and diagnostic strategies of common issues further helped building managers and O&M staff learn how to use the system effectively and efficiently.

Some tenants, including the GSA, practice new ways of working, including desk-sharing and hoteling. New workplace designs are facilitating mobility in and out of the workplace to ensure that space and energy are used most efficiently. Hoteling, desk-sharing, and telecommuting are all examples of tools that an organization can implement to decrease its energy footprint and improve employee engagement. Through its Workplace program, GSA helps its federal customers make smart decisions in planning and creating these workspaces. The program focuses on creating effective, efficient, and high-performing workspaces for the federal workforce. Smart design, sustainability, and wellness are important aspects of this discipline.

A Model for Other Projects

While the Byron Rogers building is a success story, it is one of many examples of the agency’s leadership to meet and exceed federal mandates, such as President Obama’s Executive Order (EO) 13693 to cut the federal government’s greenhouse gas emissions 40 percent over the next decade. Thanks to the GSA’s National Deep Energy Retrofit Program, the agency, RMI, and partners have successfully driven broader energy savings in ongoing energy savings performance contract (ESPC) projects (more than doubling the energy savings of their first round of projects achieving an average energy savings of 39 percent), and look to further increase the rate of ESPC project completion to deliver deeper energy, cost, and carbon savings.

Images courtesy of GSA.

Reprinted with permission.

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Since 1982, RMI (previously Rocky Mountain Institute) has advanced market-based solutions that transform global energy use to create a clean, prosperous and secure future. An independent, nonprofit think-and-do tank, RMI engages with businesses, communities and institutions to accelerate and scale replicable solutions that drive the cost-effective shift from fossil fuels to efficiency and renewables. Please visit http://www.rmi.org for more information.

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8 thoughts on “Historic Building Retrofit Performs Better Than New Buildings

  • By sweet serendipity I chanced on “The Journal of Sustainable Real Estate” which has a ton of great articles like this (but a little more academic). The main point of the many articles there is that rebuild-renovate-remodel is cheaper than slash-and-burn (not to mention more ecological) and LEED platinum costs no more than standard – it just takes a little more planning. It is the *perception* that stops more ecologically minded building – the vague feeling by builders that if it is different it has to cost more.

    Link: http://www.josre.org/

    • Great to see GSA getting into the act. Note to US Congress: Ignore all of the above – We were just kidding.

  • Am I reading this correctly that they spent $160 million in order to save $500k a year or a payback period of 320 years?

    • I was wondering about that number too. Does it include the land and/or the building itself? It can’t possibly be the cost of just the retrofit…

      • ” But I have been pleasantly surprised how I’ve been able to increase my overall well-being by taking advantage of the new gym, healthy food options, and more natural daylight”

        I have a feeling this was a general refurbishing, not just an energy fix.

        • Yep –

          “The project includes complete design and construction for upgrades to the structural elements and all major building systems. The building upgrades should reduce annual energy costs by 55 to 65 percent.

          Building upgrades include the replacement of the mechanical, electrical, lighting, fire protection and plumbing systems, as well as replacement of all exterior windows, an increase to insulation in walls and a complete renovation of all tenant spaces and most public spaces. Highly efficient LED lighting, high-performance building/lighting controls and thermal storage tanks to preserve building energy also will be installed.”


          You can bet on a lot of cosmetic work in addition to upgrading just about everything. Another site says that the interior partitions were replaced. Sounds like they stripped it down to windowless outer walls and interior floors.

          • “Upgrades to the structural elements” sounds as if they didn’t stop at the shell but repaired that too. 9/11 has led to a lot of rethinks.

          • Somewhere in my travel photos I have a picture of a multi-story building where all that remains is the historical facade which is being held up by steel braces while the other 98% of the building is being rebuilt from scratch.

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