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A Cool Upgrade: Retrofitting old buildings key to meeting the region’s sustainability goals

A Cool Upgrade: Retrofitting old buildings key to meeting the region’s sustainability goals

The GCC region’s commitment to smart infrastructure development is changing the planning and construction landscape. With data collection and analytics integration as a key driver in delivering greener, cleaner building stock, there is great potential in technologies that minimise operating costs, maximize efficiencies, and promote targeted user comfort. The challenge then is in adopting these same principles for our existing building stock and how we repurpose buildings with the kind of smart, efficient cooling technologies that not only contribute to a more sustainable environment but also increase long-term investment prospects for building owners, too.

Sustainability remains a vital focus across GCC countries and is evident in each of their national agendas. Strategies to achieve efficiency target puts retrofitting existing high energy-consuming buildings with new sustainable measures front and centre of sustainability plans. For example, in line with the UAE Vision 2021, Dubai has initiated to retrofit 30,000 buildings by 2030 in a bid to reduce the nation’s energy demands by 30%. Similar initiatives exist in Oman, Kuwait, and the KSA, and so the drive to be more sustainable is region-wide. We know that deep retrofits are the l key to addressing the challenges of climate change.

More than 50% of the energy consumption of a building can be attributed to air conditioning systems, which is why retrofitting using optimum energy conservation measures is important in achieving changes that are cost-efficient and offer a more sustainable use of power. A study by international consulting firm Booz & Company showed that in the GCC, air conditioning accounts for around 70% of the annual peak electrical consumption, and with cooling demand set to triple by 2030.

For building owners to develop a strategic retrofitting plan, they need a creative, multi-disciplinary approach that looks at technology, automation, and data analytics. The first step is to conduct level 1,2 and 3 energy audits. This is done to highlight the energy conservation measures, capital expenditures (CAPEX), potential energy savings capabilities, and payback and lifecycle costing. A walk-through audit identifies areas with high energy usage or what we call EUI “Energy Use Intensity”, dividing energy consumption of the whole year by the air-conditioned area to compare it with similar buildings. This gives a good indication as to how much energy can be saved, and more detailed measurements and energy simulation is then used to model energy conservation measures and the most suitable retrofit plan for the building. Energy conservation measures are categorized as no-cost and low-cost and while shallow retrofitting measures can lead to savings of up to 15%, deep retrofitting of HVAC systems is where the real opportunities lie, significantly cutting electrical consumption by up to 50%.

Technology proposals will be tailored to building type and usage, however, VRF is particularly effective for the repurposing and retrofitting of the old buildings we see in this region. Indeed, Variable Refrigerant Flow (VRFs) has been identified as a strategic technology delivering peak energy savings and driving the region’s cooling industry to reduce carbon footprints. Most cooling systems in old buildings can easily be retrofitted or replaced by smart VRF systems (with minimum disruption to occupancy) thanks to its high adaptability. These systems also demonstrate long-term proficiency in operating expenses (OPEX) and maintenance costs which, coupled with the adaptable cooling, put VRF at the technology of choice for the next generation of smart and green buildings. Additionally, when used with integrated smart technology (such as learning thermostats), further optimization is realised increasing efficiency outcomes by a further 10-12%.

Making existing commercial properties greener isn’t a burden, but a real business opportunity for owners and developers to reduce business costs as well as meeting their corporate responsibility. The benefits of retrofitting are significant – enabling developers to sustainably improve their real estate investment while limiting their building and development impact, reducing costs, and improving customer satisfaction and comfort. Perhaps most importantly, however, a strong forward-looking retrofit strategy is a significant and ultimately necessary step for the GCC to stay ahead of the sustainability game.