This winter, the Brussels policy scene strains to respond to the immediate impact of the war in Ukraine, including the massive pressure on energy supplies, however, it is also finalising a piece of legislation that should drive the energy transition in our buildings and the flagship "Renovation Wave", the Energy Performance of Buildings Directive (EPBD).
A reality check during the Renovation Summit at the Committee of the Regions in Brussels this November shows that the transformation of homes goes beyond the drop of the kilowatt hours used and the emitted CO2. Social fairness, job opportunities, energy poverty alleviation offices, nature preservation, and aesthetic homes must also be kept in the balance. Neglecting any of these will result in a failed Renovation Wave. Also, it is clear that the greatest CO2 reduction will be achieved if we go beyond the four walls by combining energy efficiency measures with the production of carbon-free energy and, of course, a better understanding of the way we consume energy.
These main messages must be heard by EU policymakers now, as they debate the future of buildings and crucially when voting on the revision of the Energy Performance of Buildings Directive (EPBD) in January 2023.
The Renovation Summit focused on showing that if we get the local conditions right, the funding, the outreach to residents, the optimisation of the efficiency and production balance, all adapted to the local reality, we can generate an energy transition that ticks all the boxes.
What ‘lighthouse districts’ do we already have in Europe?
When social housing providers in Flanders officially committed to installing almost 650,000 solar panels on about 60,000 buildings during the first wave of the health pandemic, they made the EU call for a fair energy transition in extraordinary times more concrete. Tenants with very low scarce incomes can now enjoy green energy while the Belgian region, thanks to the scheme, emits over 35,000 tons less CO2. The production of energy is the equivalent of about 90 wind turbines and the emission reduction in social housing neighbourhoods equal to a forest with 1.4 million trees. Two years later, in the middle of an energy crisis, the largest solar panel project in Flanders makes it possible for vulnerable households to pay 25% less for energy than the social or market rate when the sun is shining.
“Homeowners don't even realise the rise in prices today as their renovated buildings are so energy-efficient”
Estonia, the EU Member State most adversely impacted by price inflation, now over 25%, has been affected by the rise in energy prices. Speaking with the Head of International Relations and Projects at the Estonian Union of Co-operative Housing Associations (EKYL), Anu Sarnet told Housing Europe that “those households that live in apartment associations or one-family houses that underwent a renovation before the crisis are definitely in a better situation, especially when they also implemented renewable energy solutions for the production of their own energy (solar panels).” The work done by EKYL to promote and support the deep renovation of housing stock over the last 10-15 years has helped many households and apartment associations achieve energy efficiency and lower their energy bills. “Some of them [homeowners] don't even realise the rise in prices today as their buildings are so energy efficient. But these energy-efficient buildings are still in the minority among the housing stock in Estonia,” Anu Sarnet said and also added that a new renovation grant measure by the Estonian state for apartment associations should open this December.
Social renovation gives a sense of belonging and motivation to come back to do better
Ten years ago, the area of Aalborg East in the fourth biggest Danish city, was a very grey concrete area with social problems, gang crime, and robberies called by locals ‘Denmark’s Chicago’. The social housing association, Himmerland Boligforening was convinced that renovations alone could not change a city district neither that as a housing organisation, they had all the answers. Tenants but also the local schools, sports associations, and merchants had to have a say to believe in the process. More green areas, attracting private investment instead of unsafe parking lots, were added to the traditional way of renovating and it took only a few years to turn the statistics in a positive direction. The number of people in employment increased by 37% between 2015 and 2019, the number of tenants who received a criminal conviction decreased by 38% between 2016 and 2020, while tenants with basic education as their highest level of education decreased by 23% for the same period.
“Brookview was built in 2001 at the foot of the Dublin mountains, which leaves it exposed to the harsh weather. As a result, the original timber doors and windows had degraded significantly. Poor insulation and degeneration of window and door components led to low air tightness and poor heat retention, which increased the risk of mould and mildew.” This is how Co-operative Housing Ireland, CHI’s Head of Assets Management and Property Services, David McCourt described the starting point of a recent project which after renovation, grabbed the ‘Retrofit Project of the Year’ award at the 2022 Irish Building and Design Awards. The direct links between housing conditions and health have been increasingly documented since the COVID-19 pandemic outbreak. Research published by the National Housing Federation, carried out in June 2020, indicated that almost one-third of adults in England had experienced physical or mental health problems linked to its condition or lack of space during the lockdown.
Democratic and quality transformation takes time
Renovation is showing its multiple faces in every corner of Europe. Each and every time, social and affordable housing providers witness how vital its social dimension is and very importantly, its unpredictability. , the process of gaining tenants’ trust, listening to their needs, and delivering a quality renovation that will withstand the test of time is a lengthy, but worth it, process.
The Renovation Summit was also the occasion to shed light on the growing use of so-called one-stop-shops like the EU-funded OPENGELA approach in the Basque Country, a great example of cooperation between regional government, local public housing companies and private homeowners to help them renovate their buildings and neighbourhoods which crucially integrates a scheme for those who would be eligible for loans from a commercial bank. Key demands from the local level in order to pursue with the regeneration of districts are: having a stable legal framework, supporting staff in the local administration, taking consideration of the wide range of objectives and recognising the role of public funding. All this again calls for a long-term trust-based approach. Driving again home the fact that local actors need to be able to rely on stable rules and funding that reflect the nuances of renovation and take into consideration the multiple dimensions and risks they need to tackle, specific to their contexts.
*Balancing the social, climate, and technological dimensions in neighbourhoods is a model that can be upscaled all across Europe and it is the core mission of the European Affordable Housing Consortium (SHAPE-EU) which has been promoted by the European Commission. A team made up of social housing, cities and construction companies from all corners of the EU is working on creating blueprints to guide the process. Reach out if you think you have something to add.