Retrofit: A Life-cycle Approach
It has often been said that extending the life of an existing building through renovation is an inherently more sustainable option than new construction— even if the materials used for a new building are green or made of recycled content. But careful consideration needs to be given to materials throughout the various life cycles within a building to minimize the negative impacts on environmental and human health in the long run.
“Different project types go through these cycles of renovation—three years, five years, seven years, whatever it might be—and what happens to all those building materials when we’re done?”, asks Breeze Glazer, LEED AP BD+C, sustainable design leader, research knowledge manager and senior associate at Perkins+Will in New York City.
Glazer answers his own question by suggesting that most materials are discarded and dumped into a landfill or (hopefully) recycled. “So then it kind of raises this question that if the building materials themselves have toxic and unhealthy substances in them and then they get dumped into a landfill, what happens? Are we really kind of leaving this toxic burden for our children and grandchildren and future generations? Because they don’t go away, these materials; for the most part, they’re sitting somewhere.”
Jean Hansen, LEED Fellow, FIIDA, CID, EDAC, senior professional associate and sustainable interiors manager at HDR Architecture, San Francisco, suggests retrofitting existing structures can have a dramatic impact on environmental and human health if managed properly.
“When you’re retrofitting a building … whatever is coming out of that building, make sure that it’s getting into the appropriate recycling stream and not just being thrown into the landfill,” she says. “Then look for products to replace what’s existing, as the budget allows, with healthier and safer materials or products that use less energy.”
Hansen notes building owners have tremendous opportunities to evaluate existing materials that might cause concerns about health and address the maintenance side of the equation, as well, which often has the biggest impact on human health.
“We as designers are involved for really a short period of time in that overall building. The operations of it are going to be taking place for a lot longer,” Hansen says. “It’s also really important to look at how the product needs to be maintained over the lifetime and make sure that a green-cleaning protocol can be put in place to give people better indoor air quality for however long that building is going to be in existence.”