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The Federal Reserve Building in Washington, DC - the headquarters of the central banking system in the United States.

The Importance of Retrofitting Older Government Buildings

In the quest for a sustainable future, retrofitting older government buildings presents an opportunity to set the standard for energy efficiency and environmental conservation. Government buildings typically require round the clock operations but grapple with outdated and inefficient systems, making them an ideal candidate for energy-efficient upgrades. By aligning their energy use with sustainability goals, government agencies not only contribute to a greener environment but also position themselves as role models for energy conservation. 

Outdated systems impede energy efficiency and lead to expensive bills, underperforming building systems, and a significant carbon footprint. Through strategic retrofitting, these buildings can improve comfort and functionality while significantly lowering utility expenses and environmental impact. Though there are major challenges the public sector encounters in the pursuit of efficiency upgrades, there are numerous examples of successful retrofits that improved energy performance while keeping historic preservation in mind.

The Top 5 Challenges Faced When Retrofitting Government Buildings

1. Structural and Architectural Constraints

2. Outdated Building Systems

3. Funding and Budget Constraints

4. Compliance with Regulations and Historic Preservation

5. Disruption to Operations 

1. Structural and Architectural Constraints

The original design and structure of older government buildings can be one the greatest hurdles when approaching energy efficient retrofits. Older buildings often include outdated layouts and structural frameworks that aren’t compatible with modern building systems. Further complicating this process, government entities must balance modernization with preserving historic facades. Inflexible structural layouts and limited space for equipment present additional hurdles to the renovation process. Luckily, thoughtful planning and system design can overcome these challenges.


  • Collaborate with Experts: During the planning and design process, consult with both preservation and energy experts. Their combined insights will help you strategically design efficient building systems without compromising historic aesthetics.
  • Energy Modeling and Simulation: These innovative tools assist in designing layouts, overcoming space limitations, and providing insights about how renovations can improve energy performance.
  • Adaptive Reuse: Breathe new life into unused, existing spaces while preserving historical elements. Maybe an unused office space can be converted into a new utility room or perhaps a decommissioned boiler room can be repurposed into a storage space.

2. Outdated Building Systems

Outdated, inefficient building systems are usually the culprit when it comes to excess energy consumption and costly utility expenses. The largest opportunities for improvement are within the electrical, HVAC, and plumbing systems of a building.


Outdated electrical wiring and lighting systems not only waste significant amounts of energy, but present serious fire hazards. Beyond safety concerns, older electrical and lighting systems might not be compatible with modern technologies.

Heating Ventilation and Air Conditioning (HVAC)

Overworked or outdated HVAC systems present a major opportunity for improvement. Older HVAC technologies struggle to handle round the clock energy demands, resulting in inadequate heating or cooling. Gaps, cracks, or leaks in the building’s envelope can cause additional energy waste through temperature loss. Additionally, space and layout constraints may affect the ductwork layout or limit the type of equipment you can safely install.


When it comes to plumbing systems, older buildings typically have to navigate the challenges of aging pipework and fixtures. Outdated plumbing is prone to corrosion, leaks, poor water pressure, and the risk of water contamination. Bringing plumbing systems up to code is an important first step before implementing further efficiency upgrades.



  • Upgrade to LED Lighting: One of the quickest ways to save big on energy bills is by upgrading to LED, or light emitting diode, technology. LEDs are up to 90% more efficient than incandescent or fluorescent options. 
  • Install occupancy sensors: Continue the energy savings by only illuminating occupied spaces with the use of occupancy sensors. 
  • Educate Building Tenants: Informing building tenants about simple energy-saving practices fosters tenant engagement while building a culture of responsible energy consumption.

Heating Ventilation and Air Conditioning (HVAC)

  • Consult a Professional: For unique layout limitations, installation that meets modern building codes, and scheduling routine maintenance, always consult your preferred HVAC technician. Regular maintenance is the key to an efficient system.
  • Install Smart Thermostats: Smart thermostats allow building managers to implement zone heating or an HVAC schedule to ensure minimal energy waste while creating a comfortable environment. Remote access through a smartphone app or computer is another added perk.
  • Seal Leaks, Gaps, and Cracks: Older structures are prone to energy waste through temperature loss. Ensure that no heating or air conditioning is wasted by sealing all leaks, gaps, and cracks in the structure’s windows, doors, roofing, and foundation. 


  • Upgrade to Low-Flow Fixtures: Modern low-flow plumbing fixtures reduce water waste significantly, resulting in lower utility costs.These fixtures maintain functionality while minimizing environmental impact 
  • Invest in an Efficient Water Heater: Energy efficient water heaters, such as Energy Star certified models, improve overall system performance while reducing expenses.
  • Insulate Hot Water Pipes and Tanks: Reduce energy waste through temperature loss by insulating your hot water pipes and hot water tank. Insulation improves the efficiency of the system while providing on-demand hot water.

3. Funding and Budgetary Constraints

Operating with limited budgets is a common occurrence within government agencies. Retrofitting older buildings comes with a high price tag – one that often doubles with the challenges of historic preservation and antiquated infrastructure. Thankfully there are abundant opportunities for agencies to apply for funding through federal grants, tax credits, rebates, and partnerships. Avoid the fancy footwork of reallocating funds by applying for one of the programs below.


  • Climate Smart Building Initiative (CSBI): This Department of Energy (DOE) program leverages to modernize federal buildings to better meet agencies’ missions, create good-paying jobs, and cut greenhouse gas emissions
  • Commercial Property Assessed Clean Energy (C-PACE) Financing: C-PACE programs allow a property owner to finance the up-front cost of energy, or other eligible improvements, on a property and then pay the costs back over time through a voluntary assessment.
  • Better Buildings Initiative: This DOE program partners with leaders in the public sector to make buildings more energy-efficient through industry benchmarking, access to funding, and sharing efficiency resources. 
  • Energy Savings Performance Contracts (ESPC): An ESPC is a partnership between an agency and an energy service company (ESCO) to acquire energy savings and efficiency improvements with no upfront costs or special appropriations from Congress.
  • Database for State Incentives for Renewables and Efficiency (DSIRE): For additional state and local financing opportunities, the DSIRE is a great resource.
  • Public-Private Partnerships (PPP): These partnerships are a collaboration between government and private companies to jointly finance, build, and implement energy efficiency projects.

4. Compliance With Regulation and Historic Preservation

Historic preservation presents a major obstacle when retrofitting older government buildings. Necessary requirements include addressing accessibility, complying with structural building codes and safety regulations. Finding spaces for larger building systems, such as HVAC or water heaters, presents significant challenges. Sourcing appropriate finishings and building materials to match the era of the building proves challenging, particularly when seeking historic landmark status. The historic permitting process requires meticulous historic documentation and an impeccable eye for detail.


  • Comprehensive Collaboration with Experts: Successful energy efficiency retrofits demand collaboration among preservationists, contractors, and energy experts to preserve historic details, meet modern building codes, and improve overall energy performance.
  • Exemptions and Variances for Building Codes: Certain heritage buildings may qualify for exemptions or variances based on age or cultural significance. Consult preservation authorities for guidance on achieving historic building status and requesting exemptions.
  • Innovative Design and Adaptive Reuse: When facing unexpected structural or renovation constraints, adaptive reuse is a valuable tool. For instance, converting unused office spaces into utility rooms for modern equipment or repurposing unused commercial buildings into government facilities or public housing can be effective strategies.

5. Disruption to Operations

The construction phase of energy efficiency retrofits has its own set of challenges to navigate. During larger projects, tenants may be displaced from their offices or there may be a significant change in air quality and personal safety. In other areas of the facility, construction noise can interrupt daily operations. Beyond the government agency itself, coordinating logistics for deliveries and other services is crucial to the success of the project and limiting service disruptions.


  • Phased Renovation Approach: Limit disruption to daily operations by taking a phased approach to the renovation process, initiating one project at a time. Additionally, consider shifting construction work to off-peak hours, if possible. 
  • Temporary Relocation Planning: Establish a comprehensive relocation plan including timelines, logistics, temporary facilities, and contingency measures to minimize operational disruptions. Communicate this plan with all tenants of the facility.
  • Implementing Safety Standards: Prioritize proper ventilation, lighting, and signage to alert tenants and construction crews of renovation sites and safety concerns.

Case Studies: 3 Public Buildings Achieve Retrofit Success

Case Study 1: Improving Energy Performance on Ellis Island

The Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island are some of the most iconic landmarks in the United States, standing as a proud symbol of freedom since 1886. On average, this landmark sees 4.4 million visitors each year. Preparations for this efficiency retrofit began in 1992 to reduce the landmark’s energy consumption and high utility costs. Due to the popularity of this landmark, the renovations were scheduled in a long-term phased plan to limit disruptions as much as possible.

The focus of the renovation was upgrading the lighting within the museums on Ellis Island and Liberty Island to reduce utility expenses considerably. The biggest obstacle was balancing an ideal level of illumination while preserving the historic artifacts at the Ellis Island Museum of Immigration and the Statue of Liberty Museum. The team worked directly with preservation experts to find a lighting solution that creates a comfortable ambiance, provides enough lighting for guests, and doesn’t damage the relics on display. Additionally, they installed an advanced energy management system to further conserve energy. The results of this retrofit save four billion Btu annually – enough to power over 100 homes for a year.

Case Study 2: Funding a Deep Energy Retrofit with EPSCs

Lanham, Maryland is home to the impressive 1.2 million square foot New Carrollton Internal Revenue Service (IRS) building. Such a massive structure has a very high energy demand, and officials wanted to take advantage of the General Services Administration’s National Deep Energy Retrofit Program to reduce their high energy expenses. The retrofit project, which began in 2012, used energy modeling strategies to identify cost-effective upgrades. By using an Energy Performance Savings Contract (ESPC), the building was able to implement energy saving renovations with little-to-no upfront cost. 

With the goal of reducing energy consumption by 60% and water consumption by 56%, the project manager created an elaborate renovation plan which included upgrading the building envelope, installing solar panels, creating a rain garden for stormwater management, upgrading to smart LED lighting, installing a geothermal HVAC system, and implementing an advanced energy management system. In order to avoid disruption to daily operations, they took a phased approach, completing one project at a time. The results of this renovation have met their energy reduction goals while saving the entity $2.5 million dollars annually and reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 20,000 metric tons.

Case Study 3: Adaptive Reuse Strategies Create Comfortable Public Housing

Project Homekey is a public housing initiative in California that aims to repurpose older, unused commercial buildings into supportive housing for at-risk populations. In Yuba City, the California Department of Housing and Community Development partnered with Habitat for Humanity to repurpose an older motel structure into a new public housing development called Harmony Village. This adaptive reuse project required a deep energy retrofit to transform it into safe and comfortable long-term housing.

The aging structure of Harmony Village needed a full overhaul. During this conversion, the lighting and electrical system was upgraded,  improving  efficiency and bringing it up to modern building standards. Additionally, they installed efficient appliances into each unit. One major hurdle was a severely outdated water and septic system. The outdated system was updated with an efficient model that can withstand the energy demands of the growing community. Currently, Harmony Village is reaching full capacity. The creative adaptive reuse of this building provided comfortable, individual dwellings for a population at risk for homelessness. Developing this public housing structure significantly improves the community while keeping energy efficiency in mind.

Preserving History While Pursuing Efficiency

Implementing energy efficient upgrades in public buildings is no simple feat, especially when confronted with the challenges of historic preservation and limited budgets. By leveraging some of the tactics discussed in this article and applying for grants or other federal funding, government agencies can significantly reduce their utility expenses while setting an example for energy efficiency and environmental conservation. 

Investing in efficient, smart technologies not only improves the comfort of federal buildings, but also sets the agency up for a sustainable and cost-effective future. Public entities in the pursuit of reducing energy expenses can further these efforts by exploring what energy plans are available. As one of the largest energy brokers in the nation, Integrity Energy is dedicated to providing the most cost-effective energy plans on the market. Get one step closer to achieving your budgetary and sustainability goals by contacting Integrity Energy today!

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

What are the key challenges when retrofitting government buildings?

Key challenges include navigating historic preservation concerns, addressing outdated infrastructure, managing budget constraints, ensuring minimal disruption to ongoing operations, and aligning upgrades with stringent regulatory requirements.

How can government agencies balance historical preservation with necessary efficiency and structural upgrades?

Government agencies can balance historic preservation with necessary efficiency and structural upgrades by collaborating with both preservation and energy experts to find the best renovation solutions. Two methodologies include employing adaptive reuse strategies and utilizing modern technology with innovative system design that seamlessly integrates with historic elements.

What financial incentives or funding options are available to support public building retrofit projects?

Financial incentives and funding options for public building retrofit projects include federal and state grants, tax credits, utility rebates, energy savings performance contracts (ESPC), public-private partnerships, and financing programs like the Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) financing.

What are some innovative technologies used in successful retrofit projects?

Successful retrofit projects typically include smart technologies such as advanced building automation systems, energy-efficient HVAC solutions, smart LED lighting systems, integrated renewable energy sources, and data analytics tools for ongoing monitoring and optimization.

How can operational disruptions during renovations be minimized to ensure minimal impact on daily activities?

Minimize operational disruptions by implementing phased construction schedules, utilizing temporary facilities during renovation, and strategically planning and communicating the sequence of projects with building tenants. 

For additional answers to your energy efficiency and retrofitting questions, please review our general FAQ page.