The Case For Improving Buildings Has Never Been Stronger

January 26, 2021 | Lotte Schlegel

The case for improving our nation’s buildings has never been stronger than it is as we enter 2021. The last 12 months exposed the many ways in which today’s buildings are not up for modern challenges. Old building systems are being challenged to provide safe, healthy spaces amid the ongoing pandemic. Traditional business tools such as the common lease are hampering building managers in effectively operating largely vacant properties. Homes are unconditioned and unprepared to protect residents during intensifying heat waves. This alongside the urgent need to eliminate carbon emissions as quickly as possible.

The good news, however, is that the path forward is no longer a technical challenge. We can make significant progress with tools and practices available today. The question is how to deploy them effectively and rapidly at scale.

Raising expectations

In the last year, we’ve asked ourselves at IMT and many of you, what will it take to decarbonize buildings while enhancing affordability, resiliency, public health, and equity? How can we quickly move from a patchwork of building and energy practices and regulations to a nationally scalable framework that works for all of us?

To start, we must collectively establish clear expectations across all of real estate that buildings be built and operated better—with “better” meaning not just operating cost effectively but also increasing equitable access to healthy, resilient spaces across a community and creating a more diverse workforce. In practical terms, this can be done by updating real estate practices in lending, procurement, contracting, and operations to address performance, health, and equity concurrently. For example, building owners and tenants making investment decisions around ventilation adjustments and improvements would further benefit from procuring equipment that also significantly reduces energy use and associated emissions, while also ensuring that contracting processes provide opportunity to a wider spectrum of the community. For companies with clear environmental, social, and governance goals, this won’t feel new. For others, it will take some work. Yet the practices and models are out there.

We must also activate all levels of government to drive market action where investment lags. Building benchmarking, audit, and retuning policies, as well as ever-progressing building energy codes, have established fertile ground from which a growing number of jurisdictions are now creating dynamic building performance standards while working toward zero carbon codes. Increased community engagement only makes these efforts stronger and with our partners, IMT is exploring how a lifecycle approach to building performance regulation can simultaneously address climate and health, while also making way for electrification and a cleaner grid, as well as more just and resilient communities. At the federal level, there are already many lessons learned that can be deployed as the Biden-Harris administration gets to work to drive national action. To help them get started with buildings specifically in mind, IMT has a number of recommendations.

It’s time to row together

The path ahead is steep: Our current pace of energy-related upgrades is glacial. As a nation, the U.S. spends $400 billion annually on home improvements and ~$40 billion on improvements to its commercial buildings. Little of that addresses the energy-related improvements that’ll make buildings work for us in a changing climate: less than 0.2% of U.S. homes and ~2% of commercial buildings receive energy-related improvements each year.1 And yet, we have much to build upon and a growing appetite for change.

If we are able to take what we already know—whether it’s how to deeply retrofit a small number of existing buildings or increasing training and capacity in the building contractor community to create a labor pool that’s ready and able to deploy quickly—and scale it across entire portfolios and communities, the outcomes will be life changing. I don’t say that lightly. If we were to double the number of energy-related renovations to workplaces from the current 2% to 4%, it could generate 12 million metric tons of carbon savings and $2 billion in operational savings each year. If we were to target home renovations to the almost 40 million cost-burdened households in the U.S., we could not only improve health and affordability for residents, but increase career opportunities in communities across the U.S. We’re ready to make these hypothetical figures reality. Are you?


  1. 0.2% of U.S. homes calculation is based on “The State of the Nation’s Housing 2019” from the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard University and the U.S. Energy Information’s Residential Energy Consumption Survey for 2017. Commercial renovations calculation is cited from “Business-as-Usual? Energy Efficiency’s $130 Billion Opportunity,” by Andrew Burr, Lane Burt, Adam Hinge, and Julie Hughes from the 2018 ACEEE Summer Study on Buildings.
Program Area(s):

Meet the Author

Want to get regular updates from IMT?