As Yale aims for building efficiency, retrofitting proves a challenge

Though Yale’s newly constructed buildings must meet stringent sustainability standards, the bulk of its properties fall short of these standards — and retrofitting buildings still presents a significant obstacle to sustainable development.

The University’s sustainable building standards make up part of the Yale University’s 2025 Sustainability Plan. According to the 2025 Sustainability Plan Progress Report, Yale has achieved 25 LEED Gold and 3 LEED Platinum certifications as of 2021 and has 14 certifications currently underway. But the University’s campus includes more than 520 total buildings, both owned and leased. The buildings that do not undergo a major renovation or are not newly constructed often do not adhere to these standards, and Yale has not yet taken steps to retrofit many of its properties.

“Our climate goals will require additional funds be invested to modify existing campus buildings and build new buildings with enhanced systems to meet the [greenhouse gas emissions] reductions targeted,”  Virgina Chapman, director of the Office of Sustainability, wrote to the News.

At Yale, all University comprehensive construction projects must be LEED Gold certified since the University adopted the standard in 2009. LEED is a national building standard that rates a building’s sustainability according to energy efficiency, material selection and indoor environmental quality, among other factors. Platinum is the highest rating, followed by Gold, Silver and the standard LEED certification.

Chapman explained that the certification standard is ambitious; while many universities were only requiring that their buildings meet the Silver LEED Certification, Yale required all “comprehensive construction” projects to meet a minimum Gold rating. However, this Gold standard applies only to large renovations and new construction projects.

Yale School of the Environment professor Narasimha Rao and research assistant at the Office of Sustainability Sena Sugiono ’25 explained that many existing buildings could be retrofitted to meet sustainability standards, although this would involve large upfront costs.

“Retrofitting buildings is one of the biggest challenges, one of the least addressed problems, because it’s expensive,” Rao said. “Cost is the main barrier.”

Additionally, the renovations needed to make a building more sustainable may also render it virtually uninhabitable while it is being remodeled, Sugiono added.

Sugiono emphasized that these costs, however, are short-term. LEED-certified buildings should be more cost effective in the long-term because the building materials have longer life cycles; these buildings are more energy efficient, he said, and they are also carbon neutral.

“[LEED buildings] should dispel the notion that green buildings are super expensive,” Sugiono says. “The idea behind renovating it to be more sustainable is the idea that sustainability actually lets you save money … There will be an upfront cost, but in 10 years or in 15 years, which is way before the building’s expiration date, you will recoup those savings.”

Yale’s building standards are part of the University’s plan to create a carbon-neutral campus by 2035 and a zero-emission campus by 2050.

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