The Sustainability Case for Renovation

Alicia Pandimos Maurer, Iron Horse Architects

For many years the argument has been growing for building reuse versus building new. Is the argument for sustainability valid?

One of the newest and less talked about issues is the embodied carbon that we find during the construction of new buildings. So what is embodied carbon? The carbon emissions associated with construction materials. Thinking about what it takes to extract steel, wood and gypsum. I think we all know about this idea in theory, but it is extremely important when we talk about construction of new buildings in lieu of using the building stock that we currently have.

To see how much 'embodied carbon' (carbon footprint associated with materials from the cradle to the grave), we use Life Cycle Assessment. The Building industry is responsible for 39% of global carbon emissions. The issue with the embodied carbon is that it is responsible for 11% of the industry through construction materials. Per architecture 2030:

'Embodied carbon will be responsible for almost half of the total construction emissions between now and 2050.'

A key issue in the construction of a new building is schedule. Of course, reusing existing building stock can allow for a possible reduction in the schedule time for construction. You save on site work, infrastructure and other issues that can cripple a schedule. Often Design Review Board time is another key component of the new building schedule that can be greatly reduced with the reuse of an existing building.

Quality of the building and its materials can be a key decision. It is common for older materials be stronger and more resistant to wear than some newer materials. A historically significant building may be built of concrete or heavy timber whereas a new building would require less expensive and less tough building materials in order to be cost effective.

Another key positive for using existing building stock is often the location of existing buildings best for really any building: city center, waterfront, growing communities and main drag of the University campus.

Learning Objectives

  • To understand the how 'embodied carbon' can contribute to construction and the carbon footprint of a building;
  • To see how schedule can be positively affected by existing renovations;
  • To understand how quality of construction materials can affect decision in keeping existing building stock; and
  • To understand how the location of existing buildings within a site, city or campus can affect the decision to keep existing buildings or build new.


Alicia is an architect and independent consultant with more than 16 years of experience in architectural design and lab planning. Her specialty is lab planning and equipment planning with a focus on sustainability and flexibility. Alicia has experience in both Greenfield lab design and retrofit/renovations. Alicia believes that people and science inspire architecture and creativity flows from open exchange of ideas in planning and design. She received Rocky Mountain Region ENR's Top 20 under 40 Award in 2014 in recognition for her work in design and sustainability.


Note: I2SL did not edit or revise abstract or biography text. Abstracts and biographies are displayed as submitted by the author(s).