Reduce, Reuse – and Retrofit (Part 1 of 3)


Seismic fortification of buildings plays vital role in reducing carbon footprint

REDUCING CARBON FOOTPRINT — Reducing consumption of natural resources, reusing existing buildings, and retrofitting buildings to withstand earthquakes and other natural hazards are key factors in reducing the carbon footprint of construction industry.

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Combatting climate change is becoming serious business in the U.S. and California with ambitious initiatives designed to curb our dependence on fossil fuels that promote global warming.

In September, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed into law sweeping legislation to accelerate the state’s transition to 90% clean energy by 2035 and achieve carbon neutrality for the state by 2045. It was the latest step in the California Climate Commitment, a $54 billion investment that advances economic opportunity and environmental justice throughout the state.[i]

The state’s action came on the heels of landmark federal legislation — a bipartisan Inflation Bill signed by President Joe Biden, which aims to combat climate change by promoting clean and green technologies. That legislation would lower energy costs for households; create millions of good-paying jobs for American workers through the manufacture of solar panels, wind turbines and electric vehicles; and deliver a healthy future for our children and grandchildren by cutting pollution and advancing environmental justice.[ii]

Los Angeles is taking steps towards a decarbonization law requiringnew commercial and residential buildings to be all-electric, with limited exceptions. The measure is part of the city’s effort to transition to 100% renewable energy. The ordinance states the building sector is the largest source of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions within the city.

The CO2 embodied in our buildings

Renewable energy is an important part of the solution to climate change. Conservation is another – cutting back on our energy use, waste and transport. Much of that conservation starts by recognizing the embodied energy inherent in our existing building stock.

Because buildings make up 40% or more of our CO2 production, the nation’s goals for carbon must also align with emission reductions in our buildings, according to the National Building Performance Standards Coalition, an initiative launched by President Biden to decarbonize America’s building sector in ways that support the interests of disadvantaged communities. The task force, made up of governors, mayors, and county executives throughout the nation, is crafting building performance standards and other policies for energy upgrades and retrofits with the goal of presenting them on Earth Day, 2024.[iii]

“By moving toward efficient, renewably powered buildings with the support of our stakeholders, we are showing how local governments can work with their communities to pass bold, achievable, and equitable policies. This coalition is the start of a climate-safe future for all,” Denver Mayor Michael Hancock is quoted on the task force website.[iv]

But a building’s carbon footprint includes more than just the energy used for heating, cooling, lighting, and other operational uses. The structures themselves produce an inherent and complex cache of greenhouse gas emissions based on the amount energy used in the harvesting of lumber, aggregate, steel, and other resources to build the structure; the energy used to manufacture materials and products used in construction; and the carbon-based fuels spent shipping them, sometimes from across the globe, to the worksite.

“We need to preserve existing building assets by ensuring they are resilient in the face of disaster,” said Ben Stapleton, executive director of the U.S. Green Building Council, Los Angeles. “If we have to replace those assets, if we have to reinvest and rebuild, we’re recreating that carbon footprint. We’re doubling that life cycle cost of those assets. It’s much less costly from an environmental and emission standpoint to preserve the buildings we have by investing lesser amounts of money to retrofit, as well as make them more energy efficient long-term, than to recreate and to rebuild them, which only increases our costs and impact on the environment.”

To illustrate this point, cement is one of the largest emitters of C02 in construction. Beyond that is the manufacturing and shipping of heavy equipment and the fuel those machines use to move dirt, hoist materials and more. In short, the embedded carbon of a building represents every bit of energy used before the structure became operational – and that’s a lot.

This impact grows significantly when an older structure is demolished to make way for something new – a common occurrence in urban communities. The act of demolition also requires significant energy to break the building down and dispose of debris. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. generated 600 million tons of construction and demolition debris in 2018, 90% of which was from demolition.[v] In fact, the average building demolition produces 155 pounds of waste per square foot. That adds up incredibly quickly, resulting in overflowing landfills, deteriorating ecosystems, and the loss of valuable resources.[vi]

Coming Next

Part II of this 3-part series will focus on how structural retrofits prevent carbon footprint and how environmental impacts from the construction, demolition cycle can be mitigated.


[i] California Office of the Governor, https://www.gov.ca.gov/2022/09/16/governor-newsom-signs-sweeping-climate-measures-ushering-in-new-era-of-world-leading-climate-action/

[ii] The White House, https://www.whitehouse.gov/climate/

[iii] National Building Performance Standards Coalition, https://nationalbpscoalition.org/

[iv] Ibid.

[v] The Daily Northwestern, https://dailynorthwestern.com/2022/04/20/city/evanston-rebuilding-warehouse-focuses-on-second-chances-for-materials-staff/

[vi] The Environmental https://www.buildings.com/articles/34719/diverting-construction-waste

Magazine, https://emagazine.com/construction-waste/

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About the Author

Recently appointed to Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass’ Transition Team, Ali Sahabi, previously received the California Governor’s Environmental and Economic Leadership Award for taking a sustainable approach toward community development and environmental restoration in the 543-acre Dos Lagos mixed-use development in Corona, CA. A licensed General Engineering Contractor (GEC), Sahabi is an expert in building resilience and sustainability. He is Co-Founder and Chief Operating Officer of Optimum Seismic, Inc., which has completed more than 3,500 structural retrofit and adaptive reuse projects for multifamily residential, commercial, and industrial buildings throughout California. Contact Optimum Seismic at 833-978-7664 or visit optimumseismic.com to learn more about your adaptive reuse options for your building.  

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