At 2 a.m. inside the offices at 1405 Douglas St. in downtown Victoria, B.C., the digital brain that controls the building's heating and cooling starts planning its day.
"It calculates if it will be warm by 9 o'clock when people are arriving at work," says Karen Jawl of Jawl Properties Ltd. Unlike the old system, it doesn't start heating on a cool morning only to blast the air conditioning later as the weather warms. Since it was installed last year, the new "intelligent" system has saved the company $60,000 in annual energy costs.
Not bad for a six-storey office block that opened in 1969.
Office buildings from the 1960s, 70s and 80s are decaying throughout Canada. Yet forward-thinking owners find that retrofitting these properties with green technology isn't just smart for the planet - it's giving them a competitive edge, reducing operating costs and attracting tenants faster and for higher rents.
In 2006, the B.C. Investment Management Corp. discovered just how competitive a green retrofit can be. When it bought a 344,000-square-foot, 1976 vintage building on 1805 McGill Street in Montreal, the property was only two-thirds full. But after a renovation that included efficient lighting, a new digital heating system and low-flow fixtures in the restrooms, it reopened in 2007 and was filled to 95 per cent capacity within 22 months, at rental rates 30 to 70 per cent higher than before.
Tenants are rushing toward greener offices because they help attract and retain talent and improve employee productivity and health, says a 2008 Deloitte study. Not only that, but retrofitting is one of the most inexpensive ways for companies to make an environmental impact and improve their brand image.
Globally, buildings are the single largest contributor to climate change, consuming 76 per cent of all power plant-generated electricity. And although many new office towers are being built to tougher eco-standards, existing buildings in North America outnumber them 100 to one. Rather than tear these buildings down, it's more economical to replace their interior infrastructure.
"By updating the heating system and improving the lighting," says Scott Sinclair, a green building consultant who worked on the 1405 Douglas St. project, "we saved up to 20 per cent of the building's energy [use] with payback in just two years."
That's not to mention other innovations in the 42,000-square-foot concrete office tower, among them an air source heat pump and CO2 sensors that measure indoor air quality and provide ventilation depending on the number of people inside. All told, the building's new features have reduced its greenhouse-gas emissions by 89 tonnes a year.
In 2008, Mr. Sinclair's company, SES Consulting Inc., achieved similar benchmarks in Telus's Vancouver headquarters as part of an ongoing renovation that began in 2000.
With a budget of $70,000, SES refurbished the HVAC system inside the 409,000-square-foot complex. They reprogrammed it to follow weather patterns, tweaked the air circulation so it was turned off during statutory holidays, ensured electrical equipment was properly ventilated, and did so while employees still occupied the space.
In the end, SES reduced the building's greenhouse gas emissions by 180 tonnes a year. Telus now saves $91,500 in operating costs annually.
The average return on investment ranges from 10 per cent to 20 per cent, but grants from the federal ecoEnergy program and B.C. Hydro helped to cover 30 to 40 per cent of the retrofit costs at 1405 Douglas St., Ms. Jawl says. Similar subsidies are available in provinces across the country.
However, owners should ponder one thing before moving forward, says Natalie Bull, executive director of the Heritage Canada Foundation. "Buildings from this era are under threat," she explains. "They're not old enough for us to feel nostalgic about them yet, and that may lead to updates that undermine the vision of the architect."
Although that beautiful patina of age hasn't set in, owners ought to learn about their building and consider whether it is associated with an important person, architect, event or style.
In particular, dealing with large windows that have failed is difficult, Ms. Bull says. Owners should be encouraged to find alternative materials that fit the building's appearance and consult the original architects, if possible, to hear how they would incorporate green technologies.
"Buildings from the sixties, seventies and eighties are often energy hogs," Ms. Bull says. "The goal isn't to freeze them in time but find solutions that don't undermine their character."
Since property prices dipped during the recession, there's been a great deal of interest in buying up these older offices and upgrading them with new green features, says Washington, D.C.-based author and sustainable real estate consultant Leanne Tobias.
"It's possible to get green branding for a very moderate price," she says. "If you're a property owner, you know that if you have a Class A building you need to keep your property current to compete." The reality is, new Class A buildings are being built green.
This notion isn't just hot air, according to an April, 2008, study by the CoStar Group. Buildings that are LEED-certified, they found, have a 3.8-per-cent higher occupancy rate and are being rented at $11.24 per square foot more than their conventional competitors.
Owners with older properties should be wary of cost escalation, says John O'Bryan, head of CB Richard Ellis's investment team. "Newer green buildings are generally much more effective at dealing with it. And while most companies who opt for green retrofits pay a premium in the short run, it's going to pay off long term."
"Green buildings used to just be 'want to have' properties," he says, "but they're rapidly becoming 'need to have.'"
From dated and drafty to lean and green
In her book Retrofitting Office Buildings to be Green and Energy-Efficient , Leanne Tobias, a Washington, D.C.-based writer and consultant, distills instructions on how to undertake a green retrofit. Here she shares essential tips:
Get an energy audit
When you see how much energy your building is using and how much you stand to save, you may just become a convert. In many cases, the provincial government will even pay to have the work done.
Find a qualified consultant
Green building consultants can help mitigate the risks of a renovation. They can guide clients through unfamiliar processes and collaborate with contractors. Start the search at the Canada Green Building Council (www.cagbc.org) or BOMA Canada (www.bomacanada.ca).
Pinpoint the most cost-effective strategies
Heating and cooling - Eliminate waste in HVAC systems by programming on and off times. Utilize natural ventilation, and evaluate systems that run longer than they need to.
Lighting - Replace incandescent bulbs with long-lasting LEDs or compact fluorescents. Use dimmers and sensors that turn off lights when no one is in the room.
Windows - Rather than replacing them, consider adding a storm window or third layer of glazing.
Landscaping - Make the switch from spray irrigation to drip irrigation to save water.Report Typo/Error
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