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Discussing circularity in the social and affordable housing context

Every project counts in getting a step closer

28 April 2023

On 18th April the sessions of "Let’s talk circular social and affordable housing" took place, a two-part webinar that is the second of the "Circular talks" series, organised by the DRIVE 0 project in the coming weeks. The afternoon event, which was organised by Housing Europe, gave the floor to a well-balanced group of speakers.

The European Commission was represented by Philippe Moseley, Policy Officer in the Construction Unit of DG GROW, Carles Oliver Barceló and David Mayol Laverde – Balearic Social Housing Institute (IBAVI), Isabelle Quet-Hamon and Ariane Fraisseix – Paris Habitat, and Raphaëlle Brune and Guillaume Sokal, The Society for Housing of the Brussels-Capital Region (SLRB/BGHM).

While presenting the European Commission’s position, Philippe Moseley put forward the ‘The Transition Pathway for Construction’, a key document published in March 2023, part of the updated EU industrial strategy, which highlights the need to accelerate the green and digital transition of EU industry and its ecosystems. When it comes to the circular economy, the Transition Pathway states that a number of important barriers still exist, including a lack of regulatory requirements which would drive demand for circular approaches or unfavourable market conditions and a lack of financial incentives. However, questions remain on who is responsible and pays for the storage and processing of demolition materials that are destined for re-use and recycling, and where such materials can be temporarily stored, these questions being frequently raised by the members of Housing Europe. The proposed recast of the Construction Products Regulation is just on solution proposed by the EC to address the existing barriers. Additionally, a strong emphasis needs to be put on renovations, rather than demolitions.

IBAVI has adopted a very ambitious approach in recent years, with a rather increased number of new social housing units produced each year.  Carles noted: “We want people to understand that they don’t inhabit a house, but rather an ecosystem”. The main approach has been to look at the locally available construction products and the historical low-carbon building techniques (e.g., natural heating and cooling) that are perfectly adapted to the climate of the region. In their flagship project, the ‘Life Reusing Posidonia’ project, the embodied carbon of the new build homes was 60% below a more typical home.

In the case of Paris Habitat, the average age of their building stock is of about 74 years. Thus, there is a strong need for renovation, a process that can be rather complicated given the high extent of historical buildings, the density of the city and the complexity of new construction. Therefore, embracing the circular economy was a natural choice. One of the solutions that were adopted was the development of their own ‘material platform’ - Réflexe. In terms of difficulties, the ones identified by Paris Habitat were linked to insurance barriers, financial and logistical obstacles.

From Brussels, the audience were presented the case of ‘Le Clos des Mariés’. The project consists of adapting a number of existing buildings to develop 31 social housing units. A detailed assessment of  the materials that were already in the building was carried out in the beginning. The newly included elements must be designed for disassembly. The SLRB has the idea to offer a kind of circularity ‘bonus’ to firms involved in the development of the project, for meeting certain circularity objectives. However, it is not clear if this is compatible with existing laws around public procurement.

During the last part of the event, the social housing representatives took the chance to as some of their burning questions, addressed to the EC, to which Philippe prepared a multiple-point answer. He started by saying that “it is really good to see individual projects really push the boundaries of what is possible, because that really helps [the European Commission] when we are trying to produce policies. We look at what the frontrunners are doing, and what’s possible. The more they are pushing, the more we can push the policies that can follow that”. The concerns expressed by IBAVI were linked to the pushback from some Balearic Islands stakeholders who state that sustainability should not receive so much support from public funds; the obstacles for local artisans in getting the necessary labels due to high costs; the difficulty of finding companies to guarantee the building insurance; or the importance of including the embodied carbon from the development and construction phases in the EU definitions of Zero Energy Buildings (ZEB) and Nearly zero-energy buildings (nZEB). Philippe started by reassuring everyone that the circular economy is one of the top priorities of the EC. He admitted that labels are important in order to ensure that across the EU, there are harmonised systems. His belief is that as circular solutions increase, so too will the familiarity of the insurance sector. And lastly, whole life-cycle emissions are an important part of the Commission’s work. The current revision of the Energy Performance of Buildings Directive (EPBD) is trying to move away from purely looking at energy efficiency in building regulations, and instead go to a life-cycle approach based on whole life-cycle emissions.

In response to Paris Habitat’s concerns over the existing financial barriers, Philippe stated that they are well-known to the EC. One thing that could be of help is the aforementioned Delegated Acts to the EU Taxonomy, which will include a broad range of circular activities.

SLRB inquired if there is to be a common framework for digital tools to assess the environmental performance of buildings. In Brussels, they have developed a tool (TOTEM), but how comparable ought these tools be to similar initiatives developed in other regions or member states. They also insisted that it is hard to find partners with the relevant experience to develop such projects. At the same time, in public procurement, the main factor is the price, and trying to include things like circularity is currently very complicated. Regarding the assessment tools, Philippe replied that while many were already developed, the EPBD might influence the need to use them, however with no universal metrics for the time being. The new green public procurement criteria that the EC is currently working on, to be published towards the end of 2023, should help to embed circularity in public procurement.

Lastly, Housing Europe asked the question of whether building materials passports will be made mandatory or at least if there could be a way to vastly upscale their use. This would develop a secondary market secondary market that has the right scale to satisfy the need for products and offer real competition to producers of new products, which too often are very carbon and resource intensive. The EC  response was that the CPR could help to create some convergence and increased comparability for these different systems. In addition, the EU is looking at developing a new “Digital Logbook” system. This would be the material passport, plus other information like the Energy Performance Certificate (EPC), and the Building Information Modelling (BIM) all together in one digital record. However, there are still many logistical considerations that need to be further developed before any concrete proposal on this can be brought forward.

The recording of the event is available here. If you want to know more on this topic, do not miss the conference on ‘Accelerating Deep Energy Retrofit in Housing through Modular and Circular Solutions’, which will take place on the 11th of May in Athlone, Ireland.