There’s no getting around the fact that decarbonizing the building sector requires accomplishing large numbers of deep energy retrofits, and as of yet there isn’t a clear pathway toward effectively getting these done at the scale that is needed. A recent research report by the Advanced Building Construction Collaborative estimates that 29.3 million single-family homes and 3.3 million multifamily units are in grave need of deep retrofits—including new windows, air sealing, insulation, ventilation, and swapping out gas appliances for electric ones. Fortunately, some brave souls are undismayed by both the enormity of the task and its inherent difficulties, and instead are plunging ahead, devising and iterating solutions.
“We're exploring these deep energy retrofits through a couple of different lenses and learning a lot in the in the process,” says Tim McDonald, principal of Onion Flats Architecture (OFA). One of those lenses has been his work with Julie Klump, vice president of design and building performance for the Preservation of Affordable Housing (POAH), which has long been a leader in, well, preserving affordable housing. In 2023 POAH wrapped up a Phius-certified retrofit of Salem Heights, its 281-unit building in Salem, Massachusetts—one of 120 properties POAH owns and manages across 12 states in the Northeast, Midwest, and Mid-Atlantic regions. Despite that project’s challenging aspects—and because of the lessons learned there—Klump hired OFA to make progress on a series of exterior retrofits of similar buildings, starting with the Salem Fairweather.
POAH owns four Fairweather buildings, all of which are in Massachusetts, were designed by the same architect, built by the same company, and are similar in size. And, they were all built at about the same time, which means they are all due up for refurbishing at the same time. “POAH decided to take on the idea of a deep energy retrofit with exterior prefabricated panels on the Salem Fairweather project, in order to use that as a model for the rest of the buildings,” explains McDonald, who has been tasked with translating that idea into action.
This model, once it’s successful, promises many benefits, and chief among those is an exterior retrofit minimizes the disruption to the building’s occupants. “What we're trying to do here is save the millions of dollars that would be needed to relocate people if we did all of our work from the inside,” McDonald points out.