Opinion - 19/September/2023

Today’s construction must not become tomorrow’s retrofit

Achieving a much deeper and increased building renovation rate is crucial to achieving the EU’s decarbonisation objective, says Mike Stenson of Kingspan, a building materials company


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The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of FORESIGHT Climate & Energy

The biggest impact will come from reducing the energy demand of buildings and improving their thermal performance

The way we build is evolving dramatically, with new materials, systems and technologies making it possible to create architecture that is more energy efficient, resilient and sensitive to the needs of its inhabitants than ever before.

To meet the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change pathway to limit the global rise in temperature to 1.5°C, it is essential for all sectors to decarbonise rapidly over the next ten years.

Buildings are currently responsible for 39% of global energy-related carbon emissions: 28% from operational emissions, from energy needed to heat, cool and power them, and the remaining 11% from materials and construction.



Improvements in building envelopes using the external fabric first approach, in combination with rapid and wider deployment of technologies such as heat pumps, district heating systems and other renewable heat sources, are the only coherent route to meeting our targets.

Lowering energy demands with high-performance building envelopes and services reduces the investment required in renewable generation capacity and minimises the extent of predicted climate change.

High-performance building envelopes do not just reduce overall carbon emissions, energy costs and the incidences of fuel poverty, they can also provide improved comfort, health and well-being; better indoor air quality (when combined with improved ventilation and lighting provisions) and can improve the productivity of the occupants.

To reduce the energy consumption in the EU building sector, the existing building stock will need to be retrofitted. Today, 75% of existing buildings are energy inefficient and were constructed before legislation on building performance was in place.



Between 85% and 95% of today’s buildings will still be in use in 2050. With only 1% (on average) of buildings undergoing energy renovations each year, it would take over 100 years to deliver on the EU’s 2050 climate neutrality objective.

While many G20 countries have achieved some reduction in building-related emissions, they are all failing to do so at the speed and scale required to achieve the 2050 net-zero goals agreed at COP21 under the Paris Agreement.

Among European G20 nations, Germany leads the way in its retrofitting performance, followed by France. Nevertheless, even these higher-performing countries are not making sufficient progress to reduce emissions in line with global net-zero targets. Among other global G7 members, Canada, USA and Japan are  slowest.

Therefore, achieving a much deeper and increased renovation rate is crucial for achieving the EU’s decarbonisation objective. The International Energy Agency says 20% of existing buildings should have an energy retrofit by 2030 to align with EU targets.

What is not often talked about is that energy-efficient renovations bring many other benefits to occupants, owners, the economy and society at large. The expected benefits are broad for both indoor comfort and for the environment, as well as economic by boosting the construction sector and, in doing so, supporting SMEs and local jobs.




Long-term and consistent policies are critical in driving momentum and setting the path to meeting the Paris goals. Faster and more ambitious action is needed to drive the necessary change, with better sign-posting of policies and regulations to help industry deliver solutions.

The recent reshaping of the EU Energy Efficiency Directive is a positive stepping stone to achieving an accelerated transition. EU countries will be required to achieve an average annual energy savings rate of 1.49% from 2024 to 2030, up from the current requirement of 0.8%, driving energy savings in critical sectors like construction.

As an industry, we need to increase the rates of renovation of existing buildings. This means improving the performance of existing buildings to something close to that of a new building and ensuring that properties are truly future-proofed and resilient to a changing climate.

In combination with this, setting ambitious minimum energy performance standards for both new builds and renovations, to ensure that today’s construction does not become tomorrow’s retrofit is such an essential element to solve.

As a follow-on, improving the quality of Energy Performance Certificates is necessary, as they are needed to underpin the minimum energy performance standards and are also often used as a control mechanism for financing programmes.

Where building prowess was once measured in tonnes of concrete and steel, today’s stand-out buildings sing of how little of its construction and operation weigh on the environment. Building better and providing more efficient products is the single most important action we in the built environment industry can take against our present environmental emergency.

If you have a thoughtful response to the opinions expressed here or if you have an idea for a thought leadership article regarding an aspect of the global energy transition, please send a short pitch of 200 words outlining your thoughts and credentials to: opinion@foresightdk.com.


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