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When sustainability is not only about the green transition, but also about ensuring the well-being of residents in affordable housing

The case of the Sustainable Plus Energy Neighbourhoods

28 February 2023 | Published in Energy, Social

If you are not a researcher working on the topic of energy efficiency, Sustainable Plus Energy Neighbourhoods (SPEN) probably does not mean much to you, so let’s break down the meaning of the EU-funded project, syn.ikia of which Housing Europe and social housing providers are part of. Below, our Communications Junior Officer, Andreea Nacu, will tell you more about syn.ikia, a Horizon2020 project that started in 2020, aiming at achieving predominantly social housing neighbourhoods that not only will have a reduced energy use, but by using renewables and state-of-the-art technology, will produce surplus energy.

Four real-life plus-energy demo neighbourhood projects tailored to four different climatic zones – Mediterranean, Marine, Continental and Subarctic –  are being developed, analysed, and monitored, demonstrating the functionality of the plus-energy neighbourhood concept for the rest of Europe. If you want to learn more on the definition of SPEN, you can find here the latest paper published by the syn.ikia partners.

So far this does not seem to be an unthinkable aspiration. The challenge is how to boost access to affordable housing while at the same time reducing emissions and energy use. Three out of the four demos are managed by social and public housing providers that put the well-being of their tenants first. Two of the four buildings involved in the project, one newly built and the other freshly renovated, have already welcomed their new tenants. Let us dive into the whole process.

Last spring, all the project partners gathered in Uden, the Netherlands, to see for themselves what the Loopkanstraat SPEN looks like. The state-of-the-art demo, representing the Marine climate, includes technologies such as radiant floor heating, ground source heat pumps, or designing a predictive twin. But sustainability is also about social inclusion. This is why Area Wonen, the Dutch social housing provider, created a programme called: tenants-ambassadors. The future tenants answered a call for applications, which would give them a few extra responsibilities within the community. Once selected, they would take on the tasks of raising awareness of what it means to live in such an environment, as well as providing some support for the residents with special needs, to help them integrate and become independent. Housing Europe interviewed both the housing provider and the tenants before the works were finished, but we also recorded a podcast after the building started to be used.

The second syn.ikia social housing demo neighbourhood that opened its doors to the new tenants was the Continental one, the Gneis District in Salzburg. The project consisted of the retrofits of several apartment buildings from the 1970s, but also the construction of new apartments. Salzburg Institute for Regional Planning and Housing (SIR) was the organisation that coordinated the work. The people living there were involved in the project by conducting user surveys, organising information evenings and one-on-one talks, and employing a liaison officer within SIR. Tenants were guaranteed the opportunity to return after project completion (and to engage in the planning) or were helped to find a new apartment.

On top of the sustainable standards included in the buildings, there was also a focus on improving the mobility of the neighbourhood. “Mobility Point”, a technical room available to all residents, was designed to host shared mobility modules: bicycle basket trailers, bicycle child trailers, e-scooters and e-bikes, an e-cargo pedelec and an e-car, including charging stations. The number of parking spots was in turn reduced. The aim was to reduce the use of private cars to a minimum through alternative means of transportation.

While the initial feedback was positive, as part of the syn.ikia project, monitoring residents’ satisfaction and use of the innovative solutions will continue for another two years. It is also important to mention that the Austrian Climate Protection Ministry recognised the value of the results of the transformation of the Gneis neighbourhood. The cooperative planning process, a comprehensive urban plan, the implementation of the klimaaktiv standard, are a few elements that contribute to this acknowledgement. You can see why the project was worthy to appear on TV here.  The partners will meet again in April, this time in Salzburg, and more updates will be shared then. But in the meantime, you can listen to the interview with the housing provider.

Fondo, from Santa Coloma de Gramenet in Spain, is also progressing steadily in achieving a sustainable plus energy neighbourhood for public rental housing.  The Mediterranean climate demo project will be composed of  larger multi-family buildings. The developer of the project, the public housing provider INCÀSOL, works closely with the Housing Agency of Catalonia to ensure, on top of the construction phase, that there is good communication with the future residents, and that they are accompanied and effectively engaged. There will also be an energy manager, who will oversee the monitoring and optimising of the energy balance of the buildings, as well as issuing the energy bills or advising the tenants. The demo is still under construction, and it will include facilities such as a library or kindergarden. An interesting aspect to mention is that building installations have been designed to make possible the connection to a future district heating. The future tenants will be able to move in at the end of the year.

While a lot of work was being done in all the demo projects, syn.ikia took the opportunity to be present at some interesting public events. Last June, during the International Social Housing Festival in Helsinki, the ‘People-centred energy transitions in neighbourhoods’ workshop was organised by the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU), which is the syn.ikia project coordinator. The intention was to highlight the challenges of including low-income households and vulnerable sections of society in the sustainable transition. Later on, the project was present at the New European Bauhaus Festival in June and the European Sustainable Energy week in September, both in Brussels. The project took part in the Energy Fair to raise awareness on what are the benefits of Sustainable Plus Energy.

This year promises to be a busy and productive one for syn.ikia. It is time to talk about reaching wider scales and encourage the market uptake of plus energy neighbourhoods and energy communities. An in-person workshop will take place in Brussels on March 13th on the topic of developing business models, bringing together experts in the field to showcase the latest research and developments on Sustainable Plus Energy Neighborhoods/Positive Energy Neighborhoods in this area. But many other results will be released throughout the year, such as: detailed dynamic models for the plus energy buildings of syn.ikia neighbourhoods; policy recommendations at the EU-level; or the syn.ikia cloud hub, a tool for exchanging, processing weather and energy-related data.

If you are looking to know more about syn.ikia, keep an eye on the International Social Housing Festival 2023 programme. And of course do not forget about subscribing to the bi-annual newsletter, and following the news on LinkedIn and Twitter.