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'Reskinning' Gives World's Old Urban Buildings Energy-Saving Facelifts

The practice of 'reskinning' exteriors of aging infrastructure can help retrofit entire cities to be 'more efficient' and 'more beautiful,' advocates say

By Robert Gluck

Feb 16, 2011

In a paper called "," written with Ted Kesik, a colleague of Saleff's on the Daniels faculty, the duo explain that applying a new "skin" over the building insulates the exterior and covers "thermally conductive" slab edges, conserving energy. The new building skins also often include sun shading and can be integrated with services like geothermal heating.

How big is reskinning today? According to Saleff, it is catching on all over the world, primarily in Canada, the Nordic European nations and across Western Europe.

Particularly in the European Union, countries have used reskinning of deteriorating buildings to help meet carbon-reduction goals, Kesik . In Bratislava, for instance, an entire district of hundreds of tower blocks is being "reskinned" as a condition Slovakia's acceptance to the EU.

Generally, "everyone is jumping on the 'green bandwagon' because it is such a powerful marketing mechanism," Saleff said. "Private owners all over ... and not just in Toronto or Canada are conducting building renewal, which goes beyond towers and includes other typologies of all scales. They are involved in renewal because it is an inevitable need, which makes good business sense and indirectly supports the 'green economy.'"

Indeed, reskinning buildings with new exteriors is just one option in the growing portfolio of green retrofitting possibilities that includes energy-saving lighting, green roofs and water-use reduction.

Green Building Boom Good for Cities

The (USGBC) touts green building as the bright spot in the U.S. economy. It represented $60 billion of the construction industry in 2010 and is projected to increase to $96 to $140 billion by 2013, according to figures from the group.

And from there, it could explode.

In a boon to the industry this month, President Obama unveiled the during a visit to Penn State University — a plan to make the nation's commercial buildings 20 percent more efficient over the next nine years. Efforts taking place at the federally funded at the Philadelphia Navy Yard, where 90 organizations are developing green building technologies, will play a big role, the president said.

The effort in Philadelphia is expected to create thousands of engineering, manufacturing, construction, installation and retail jobs, he added.

"Improving building efficiency may not sound too sexy until you realize that our homes and businesses consume 40 percent of the energy we use," Obama said in a talk delivered on the campus. "The good news is we can change all of that. Making our buildings more energy-efficient is one of the fastest, easiest and cheapest ways to save money, combat pollution and create jobs right here in the United States of America."

For Saleff and Kesik, however, reskinning offers something beyond carbon savings and jobs for the world's cities: healthier and more attractive neighborhoods.

"Aging modern towers may be our greatest urban resource," Saleff and Kesik wrote in their paper. "They present opportunities for significant greenhouse gas reductions. Thoughtfully managed, they may once again transform a region, enabling vibrant neighborhoods, healthy communities, and a sustainable built environment."

Boston, home of the historic building

Boston provides a great case study in this area. It's a historically old area, and people love the feeling of an old city. Yet the complex part comes in the interplay between wanting more efficient buildings and preserving historical aesthetics. Goody Clancy, a design firm in our SPI Green Firm Certification program (), is known for their expertise in this space. The remarkable thing about Goody Clancy and their green guru Jean Carroon is that they have been successful in reaching both goals of sustainability and preservation. She was in an interview this week in Metropolis Magazine here: .

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