New research finds that commercial property needs to'up its game' on urban retrofit

Commercial property produces 10% of the UK's greenhouse gas emissions and consumes 7% of UK energy. It is therefore surprising that UK business is overlooking a potential cost-saving of £1.6b through under-investment in energy efficiency, with the UK's commercial retrofit market potential estimated at £9.7b. Given that some 70% of commercial properties will still be standing in 2050, retrofitting, or re-engineering, a city's built environment and infrastructure for a sustainable transition to the future will be crucial. But how is the UK commercial property sector responding to the challenges of retrofitting our cities by installing energy, water and waste efficiency measures in existing buildings?

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New research led by Professor Tim Dixon, of the School of Construction Management and Engineering at the University of Reading addresses this important question. Based on nearly 40 interviews with key players in commercial property, the research looks at current and future trends in commercial property retrofitting by examining:

  • Who is involved in retrofit? - identifying the main stakeholders in the commercial property retrofit regime and its main characteristics;
  • What is retrofit? - defining what is meant by 'retrofit' and examining the key retrofit technologies being used;
  • Why is retrofit carried out? - examining the key drivers and barriers for commercial property retrofit; and,
  • How is retrofit carried out? - examining the institutional frameworks, legislation and monitoring/standards behind commercial property retrofit (including financing, assessment methods and monitoring and verification systems).

The research, which forms part of the EPSRC Retrofit 2050 programme, summarises the key challenges to retrofitting at city scale in the sector, and sets out insights for the future.

Commercial property retrofit is the process of making planned interventions in a building to install or replace elements or systems which are designed to improve energy and/or water and waste performance. The research found, despite examples of 'light touch' retrofit (such as LED lighting, improved building services and building management systems), that the rate of retrofit in the sector is low. The UK commercial property regime is also being hampered by complexity, fragmentation and conservatism.

Crucially, the commercial property sector does not take a city scale view of retrofit projects and so is 'city-blind' to retrofit opportunities, and this is also hampering progress. Major changes to policy and practice are needed to increase progress in the sector:

  • Mandatory Display Energy Certificates (DECs) are needed in commercial property, underpinned by incentives, for example, through business rates and stamp duty reductions for more energy efficient property.
  • Restructuring of the Green Deal is needed, and increased support from the UK Green Investment Bank is required at city level.
  • An approved products and suppliers list is needed for commercial property retrofit so that users have the best and most appropriate levels of information about retrofit technologies.
  • Better 'performance in use' data is needed for commercial property and improved support for new and emerging technologies is needed.
  • There needs to be a clearer consistency in commercial retrofit assessment standards around BREEAM, Ska Rating and other related standards.
  • There should be better consistency in monitoring and verification standards, perhaps based around the International Performance Measurement and Verification Protocol (IPMVP®).

Tim Dixon said:

'This research shows that the commercial property sector still has much to do in order to connect with the wider community in cities. Part of the problem lies in finding a consistent definition for retrofit, but we also need to have an integrated retrofit focus on energy, water and waste, and not just energy. This is a very different sector from domestic property, and its diversity, complexity and its risk-averse nature all present big challenges. But if we are to make commercial property retrofit work at scale we will need to see mandatory standards such as DECs, and stronger and more collaborative partnerships at city level, especially based around decentralised energy schemes'.

About the research

The research is part of the Urban Foresight Laboratory work package, which is part of the wider EPSRC Retrofit 2050 programme of work (

The report can be accessed at:

The research was led by Professor Tim Dixon (Principal Investigator and Work Package Leader) at University of Reading, who is the main author of the report. The research was carried out with input from Oxford Brookes University.

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