Manhattan skyline

The Retrofit Playbook for Large Buildings

Cities and states can benefit from lessons on strategic decarbonization from New York City and the Empire State.

New York City’s skyline of skyscrapers is an icon of architectural triumph. It’s also the frontier of large building decarbonization. On May 22, Governor Kathy Hochul announced the third cohort of projects awarded through the $50 million Empire Building Challenge to advance emissions reductions from buildings across New York State. The announcement also included the launch of the new Retrofit Playbook for Large Buildings, a free online resource to help building owners achieve strategic decarbonization and modernize their buildings.

With the help of leading commercial and multi-family property owners, the Empire Building Challenge has, since 2020, set an ambitious agenda for the Empire State: to phase out fossil fuels and exemplify strategic decarbonization planning. This effort is about more than environmental responsibility, it’s an economic imperative driven by new tax incentives and the city’s Local Law 97, which demands a 40 percent reduction in carbon emissions by 2030 for buildings over 25,000 square feet.

What the retrofit playbook offers

The challenge of retrofitting office towers and large multifamily buildings is daunting and extends beyond New York City. Globally, owners and developers view large building decarbonization as formidable and costly. The new Retrofit Playbook for Large Buildings includes real-world case studies for a range of building types, including commercial, multifamily, affordable housing, and high-rise.

The Playbook offers project-specific technical details and best practices that help building owners achieve significant energy and carbon reductions. It also supports an equitable transition to clean energy, enhancing the comfort and health of low- to moderate-income residents. Unique features of the playbook include:

  • A step-by-step guide: The process for strategic decarbonization planning developed and demonstrated on landmark NYC buildings.
  • Real-world financial data: Detailed case studies of 10+ buildings with financial analyses, presenting transparent cost implications and economic benefits of various retrofit strategies, highlighting expected savings and net present values.
  • Community of practice: Content sharing opportunities for leaders in the industry to submit case studies or resources that enhance visibility of their projects and the offerings of the Playbook.
How to implement the strategic decarbonization approach

Strategic decarbonization goes beyond mere technology swaps. It involves understanding the lifecycle and operational strategy of buildings, identifying long-term, adaptable solutions that integrate seamlessly with financial and investment cycles. The Playbook emphasizes a three-step process to generate an action plan for a resource efficient and resilient building:

This framework will help building owners understand the unique opportunities of modernizing their structures. The framework on the site presents specific trigger events that owners should identify and plan for in advance.

This step-by-step approach explores integrated decarbonization engineering solutions, so the project team can strategically decide what plan makes sense in the long run. This part of the process encourages owners to consider opportunities for improving efficiency by reducing energy loads and recovering wasted heat before diving into electrification. This can allow for more resource-efficient electrification in the long-term.

Too often, financial analysis of proposed decarbonization investment only considers gross project capital costs and energy costs, under a paradigm of limited energy efficiency with quick simple payback. Transitioning building systems is different. Accurate decarbonization accounting should include business-as-usual avoided costs and avoided risks and additional value creation from building modernization and future-readiness. Understanding key components in the net present value equation, beyond just hard retrofit costs, will allow for a more holistic decision-making process.

And finally, completing these three steps results in a strategic decarbonization action plan that is responsive to a building’s technical and financial circumstances.

The Retrofit Playbook for Large Buildings offers assessment tools, technical resources, and financial planning resources for building owners and their teams to accomplish these steps. Scroll through the landing page for access to these tools.

Industry engagement and future impact

The Playbook actively encourages engagement and collaboration within the industry. The information on the site was only possible through this engagement and collaboration, and it should be developed and expanded with learnings from other industry leaders.

Industry professionals, experts, and academics are invited to submit case studies of innovative retrofit projects, suggest resources that augment the knowledge base, and/or request specific resources to tackle challenges within the field. These contributions are vital in developing a comprehensive playbook that not only instructs but also inspires sustainable building practices.

The Retrofit Playbook for Large Buildings aims to be a one-stop-shop for industry best practices. By aligning with the climate commitments of major real estate firms, the Playbook presents actionable solutions that challenge traditional practices. This strategic approach extends beyond mere compliance, viewing decarbonization as a chance to cut operating costs, boost property values, and attract environmentally conscious tenants. It empowers industry leaders to establish new sustainability benchmarks, enhancing their reputation and providing a competitive edge in a market increasingly attentive to environmental impact.