The staggering pace of technological development poses a challenge to those who design, construct and equip both private and public housing. Since buildings are constructed to last much longer than the technology initially installed in them how do we ensure that these existing buildings, and not least the people living in them, can take advantage of the new technologies as they emerge? The answer is retrofitting, and it is set to improve both the environment as well as people’s lives.

The concept of retrofitting is nothing new. It became an urgent necessity during World War II, when weapons technology was advancing at an intense pace and planes and ships were becoming outdated even before their construction was complete. The only solution was to retrofit the completed craft with brand-new technology.

The building industry revived the concept of retrofitting on a massive scale during the energy crisis of the 1970s, when new features were added to millions of old houses to make them more energy-efficient. Retrofitting is thus different from merely renovating, which may not involve any new technology at all.

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Meeting the global challenge of an entire generation

Globally, businesses, national and local governments, as well as property owners have begun retrofitting millions of older buildings in a bid to reduce energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions. These retrofits are the most cost-efficient way to combat climate change and reduce rising power bills.

Across the world, countries from the United States to China have now publicly announced goals to reduce emissions over the coming years. Also, larger cities such as New York City have announced their own goals for emission reduction. If the World is to successfully reduce its greenhouse gas emissions, refurbishing and retrofitting old buildings is vital. Cities across the globe are facing increasing demand on resources — resources they need to function.

Greywater systems

By 2050, it iss predicted that London alone will need to find an additional 500 million liters of water each day. The average person currently consumes 150 liters of drinking water per day. The UK government would like to see this reduced to 130 liters per person per day by 2030. One technological solution would be to reuse non-potable water such as rainwater and greywater for purposes that do not require high-quality water. If treated correctly, it can be used for flushing the toilet, watering gardens and washing cars, helping to reduce water consumption by more than a third.

But, ask a green construction expert if it’s easier to design an energy-efficient building from scratch or retrofit an old one and the answer will almost certainly be unanimous: Designing a new one.

For buildings under construction today, it is possible to include infrastructure such as non-potable water pipework routing, and set aside space for treatment and storage equipment at a much lower cost than retrofitting non-potable water systems at a later stage. This is already happening in the desert city of Tucson, Arizona, and more recently also in San Francisco, California, where all new housing was effectively mandated to include provision for future greywater re-use.

Let there be (LED) light

The lighting sector has experienced substantial transformations in recent years. Light Emitting Diode technology (LED) is the primary reason for this revolution. These solid-state semiconductors – although more expensive than traditional bulbs – last at least three times longer, emit at least twice as much light, and cost roughly half as much to operate. This has made them increasingly attractive to governments and companies seeking to cut their energy bills and related maintenance costs.

Fast LED uptake has subsequently highlighted new possibilities and functions for lighting. Advances in LED technology allow for a shift in lighting function from purely brightening, to a human-centric approach. For the first time in history, lighting design does not just address the visual effect of illumination, but increasingly adds to the emotional and biological wellbeing of a person, and even plants. Furthermore, the wider smart city approach is enabling the integration of lighting into the wider urban landscape. LED now comprises more than 50 percent of all new public outdoor lighting fixtures sold and this percentage continues to grow rapidly.

  • In Buenos Aires, Argentina, the city is in the midst of replacing the majority of the 125,000 existing streetlights with new LED luminaires.
  • In Copenhagen, Denmark, an LED-lighting system changes the color of bus lanes during rush hour, turning them into bike lanes.
  • In Amsterdam, The Netherlands, large-scale LED lighting implementation is used as a gateway to a smart-grid initiative aimed at linking up to 50 billion objects in an Internet of Things.
  • In Paris, France, LED traffic lights are being installed that will digitally network to improve traffic flows, while LED street lighting will automatically detect when a street light needs replacing.
  • In Jamshedpur, India, LED is expected to reduce energy consumption for streetlights by 54 percent.
  • In New York City, USA, a USD 76 million retrofit of street lighting with LED will reduce lighting energy costs by 35 percent by 2019.
  • In Los Angeles, USA, the first phase of a LED retrofit of over 140,000 luminaires brought down streetlight energy use from 190 million to 110 million kilowatt-hours.

Retrofitting to ‘age in place’ is new homebuilding specialty

Accessibility in the home is a prerequisite for disabled and elderly people to lead a normal and dignified life. This requires accessibility and automation incorporation as early as possible in the retrofitting project phase.

Publications aimed toward senior citizens contain dozens of advertisements for new living accommodations. Throughout the world, construction of new senior living options from free-standing condominiums to independent and assisted-living apartments with various levels of nursing care is booming. It is difficult to find a business that can give you advice on how to turn your existing home into a place fit for ageing in place.

In the US, however, those businesses, called “Certified Aging in Place Specialists”, are slowly emerging. They can provide a number of services to senior citizens helping them stay in their own home longer and safer. So far, most of these specialists are home remodelers, but health care professionals, home care providers, architects, and designers are moving in. This will almost certainly improve the quality of retrofitted buildings for the elderly and disabled and help them keep living – in their own homes.