Ten renovation and retrofit projects transform existing buildings into showcases for sustainable strategies.

Over the last several years, sustainable design has become much more prominent in the public mind, but it still tends to be associated with new buildings. With the ongoing recession significantly slowing construction and building owners and tenants hunting for ways to cut operating costs, attention is shifting to energy-efficient renovations and retrofits.

Working with existing buildings involves constraints on certain aspects of sustainability—e.g., it can be difficult to change a structure’s solar orientation or affect its proximity to public transportation—but it has the advantage of reusing construction materials and the embedded energy involved in originally transporting them to the site.

Owners wishing to indicate third-party verification of sustainable renovations and retrofits can apply for certification from the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) rating system, including the categories of LEED for New Construction (LEED-NC) or LEED for Commercial Interiors (LEED-CI), as well as LEED for Existing Buildings (LEED-EB), now called LEED for Existing Buildings: Operations and Maintenance (LEED-EBOM) in the current version. To achieve this last rating may or may not require renovation, because certification measures the building’s operations and maintenance, but often owners incorporate upgrades to enhance their scores—as well as to save electricity and water costs and to exemplify environmental responsibility. Ultimately, sustainability is a process that extends over the life cycle of an edifice.


Companies devoted to enhancing sustainability in the built environment have a particularly strong reason to incorporate sustainable design in their office spaces to showcase what can be done. Szencorp, which supplies energy and water efficiency services, purchased a typical 1987 office building at 40 Albert Road in Melbourne, Victoria, to remake into its headquarters. Completed in 2005, the four-story edifice now has an integrated occupancy sensor system, with a central interface monitoring all zones on each floor, shutting off lighting and heating when not needed as well as controlling security and other automated systems. The design by SJB Architects of Melbourne added a glazed stairwell at the structure’s center and large operable windows to maximize daylight and fresh air, as well as water-conserving plumbing, rainwater harvesting, and graywater recycling.

Throughout the building there are 59 meters that measure energy use. In 2009, the structure achieved energy savings of 65 percent compared to pre-retrofit consumption; water savings are 88 percent, compared to the industry average. The project received a 6 Star rating under the Green Building Council of Australia’s Green Star Rating System.

2. 901 Fifth Avenue – SEATTLE, WASHINGTON

The 41-story office building at 901 Fifth Avenue in downtown Seattle, Washington, was among the city’s earliest skyscrapers when it was constructed during the early 1970s as the Union Bank Tower. But it lost its cachet over the years, with undersized lobbies and exterior columns that partially obstructed daylight. Boston-based Beacon Capital Partners purchased the structure in 2004 and initiated a major renovation, trimming column corners to let in more natural light, creating open floor plans, renovating lobbies, and introducing energy-efficient mechanical and lighting systems, water-efficient landscaping, a rainwater harvesting system, and a green roof.

Currently owned by real estate investment firms RREEF Real Estate, headquartered in San Francisco, and Kennedy Wilson, headquartered in Beverly Hills, California, the tower has received LEED-EB Silver certification. It is part of a larger project including a new condominium tower and landscaped public plaza on the same block, targeted to achieve LEED Gold. Seattle-based Ruffcorn Mott Hinthorne Stine served as architect on the renovations of 901 Fifth and designed the new tower.

3. Alliance Center – DENVER, COLORADO

The Alliance for Sustainable Colorado leases offices to nonprofit organizations dedicated to advancing sustainability. To provide space to carry out this mission, it purchased a 1908 five-story brick warehouse in Denver’s Lower Downtown District with the goal of refashioning it into a model of green design strategies. Completed in 2006, the refurbished facility earned both a LEED-EB Gold rating and a LEED-CI Silver rating. Local architecture firm ShearsAdkins reconfigured the interiors with open floor plans to make the most of the building’s large windows, extending daylight penetration.

Sustainable features include water-efficient plumbing fixtures, energy-efficient lighting, low-water landscaping, highly insulated glazing, and extensive use of renewable and recycled materials—including insulation made from old blue jeans. Digital controls for the mechanical systems allow for customized temperatures and air flow for the building’s 40-plus zones.

4. Carriage House Children’s Center – PITTSBURGH, PENNSYLVANIA

The Carriage House Children’s Center (CHCC) is a nonprofit organization that applied green renovation strategies to a historic structure to provide space for nonprofit tenants. In addition, the CHCC uses the building to operate its own early education and preschool program for more than 200 children. Located in Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill neighborhood, the Wightman School Community Building was originally erected in 1896 to serve the public school system.

Local architecture firm Moshier Studio worked with the CHCC and Jendoco Construction Corporation—also local—to overhaul the heating and cooling system, freeing up more than 2,000 square feet (186 sq m) of program space in the process. Along with added insulation and new lighting, the system significantly cuts electricity bills. Low-flow faucets and fixtures and waterless urinals reduce water use, and more than 95 percent of construction waste was diverted from landfills for reuse. Completed in 2007, the project earned a LEED-EB Gold rating.

5. FBI Chicago Building – CHICAGO, ILLINOIS

Even a highly green building can become significantly greener. USAA Real Estate Company, headquartered in San Antonio, Texas, used an 11-story structure in Chicago, built in 2006 for the U.S. General Services Administration to accommodate regional offices of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, to serve as a pilot project for the LEED for Existing Buildings: Operations and Maintenance (EBOM) rating system. On the 1-to-100 scale of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Energy Star program, the facility already scored 78.

By performing retro-commissioning of the mechanical, lighting, and building automation systems, introducing continuous commissioning, and installing submeters to better track energy use, property managers were able to tweak operations and earn an Energy Star rating of 95—placing it among the top 5 percent in energy efficiency compared to office buildings nationwide. Installing water-efficient plumbing and replacing nonnative plants with low-water native plantings cut water use significantly. The facility garnered a LEEDEBOM Platinum rating.

6. Garden Street Lofts – HOBOKEN, NEW JERSEY

In 2007, after renovating a 100-year-old Hostess cupcake plant in Hoboken into a commercial building, Teaneck, New Jersey–based developer Bijou Properties set its sights on the old warehouse next door, where the cupcake company once stored coconuts for its products. Completed in 2009, that structure now contains commercial space as well as 30 one-to three-bedroom condominium units. SHoP Architects of New York City preserved the architecture of the original five-story brick warehouse while adding a modern, zinc-clad addition that folds around and above it.

A new vegetated roof, planted with sedum, insulates the building and absorbs rainwater. Paints and other finishes emit little or no toxic chemicals, and the energy-efficient mechanical system relies on fresh air. Renewable and recycled materials include bamboo flooring and denim insulation. More than 80 percent of construction waste was recycled.

7. Marks & Spencer – BOURNEMOUTH, DORSET, U.K.

One of the U.K.’s largest retailers, Marks & Spencer, headquartered in London, kicked off a plan to green all of its stores with the retrofit of its 70-year-old store in Bournemouth, England. London-based architecture firm 3DReid redesigned the entrance lobbies with two sets of doors to keep heat from escaping, replaced display windows with thermally efficient glazing, and added energy-efficient lighting, refrigeration, heating, and ventilation systems.

The air-conditioning system relies on chilled posts that cool the air only to head height. New dual-flush toilets and automatic shutoff faucets conserve water. Carpeting and tiling with low or no hazardous contents were specified, and even some of the display equipment derives from recycled plastic. Completed in 2007, the renovation of the 51,000-square-foot (4,738-sq-m) facility also involved recycling or reusing 80 percent of construction waste.

8. Scowcroft Building – OGDEN, UTAH

The Scowcroft Building, erected in downtown Ogden, Utah, around 1900 to house a dry-goods wholesaler, shut its doors during the late 1950s. After nearly 50 years of vacancy and neglect, the four-story brick structure has found new life as office space for the U.S. General Services Administration. The building offered inherent sustainable elements, with thick walls and adjacency to a new public transit center.

Developer Cottonwood Partners and Cooper Roberts Simonsen Architecture, both of Salt Lake City, restored the exterior, inserted two full-height atriums to bring in natural light, added reflective roofing, and installed a high-performance heating and cooling system that relies on under-floor air distribution. Low-flow plumbing fixtures and native and low-water plants reduce water consumption. Completed in 2004 using historic preservation tax credits, the renovation earned a LEED Silver rating.

9. Woodfields – KINGSLEY, HAMPSHIRE, U.K.

As part of a wider effort to retrofit the U.K.’s existing social housing stock, charitable housing association Drum Housing Association, based in Petersfield, Hampshire, worked with London-based climate change and sustainable development consultant Energy for Sustainable Development (now Camco) to substantially upgrade the energy efficiency of six two-and three-bedroom houses in Kingsley, Hampshire. The goal was to reduce the carbon emissions of the 1950s-era dwellings by at least 60 percent against their baseline.

Completed in 2007, the energy-saving measures included insulating cavity walls and loft spaces and adding double-glazed windows, energy-efficient mechanical ventilation with heat recovery, and wastewater heat recovery. New ground source heat pumps and roof-mounted photovoltaic panels provide renewable energy. At present, Drum Housing is refurbishing 20 existing precast concrete homes in Peters-field using a similar set of strategies.

10. World Wildlife Fund Headquarters – ZEIST, The NETHERLANDS

Birds breed in nesting boxes built into the facades; bats have access to parts of the basement. The rest of the Dutch headquarters of the World Wildlife Fund in Zeist is for humans. Located within a nature reserve, the 40,580-square-foot (3,770-sq-m) facility was once an agricultural laboratory, constructed during the 1950s. Amsterdam-based architecture firm RAU kept the bar-shaped building’s concrete structure and inserted a bloblike form at the center to house public functions such as reception and meeting rooms.

Extensive glazing allows natural light to permeate floor plates, while horizontal wooden fins block solar heat gain. Mud plaster lines all interior walls and ceilings. A biodegradable, readily available insulating material, this mud covers a network of fine tubing that pumps water from below-ground reservoirs, warming the interiors in winter and cooling them in summer. Rooftop solar cells and solar thermal collectors provide electricity and hot water. The headquarters was completed in 2006.