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The social and affordable housing sector playing its part in accelerating circular renovation

Or on the capacity to upscale innovation

30 November 2023 | Published in Future of the EU & Housing

As the transition to a circular economy in the built environment is gathering pace, how can we make sure that it is a fair one that respects human rights, including the right to adequate housing.

The social, public, cooperative housing sector represented by Housing Europe is committed to bring down emissions in their construction and renovation activities. This requires a new systemic approach to development from adaptable pre-fabricated renovation modules to extend the life of buildings to improving local supply chains so that we can reduce the carbon footprint, not only in the use-phase homes, but also those linked to construction activities.

Andres Jaadla, Member of the Committee of the Regions (CoR) and Housing Europe’s Estonian member EKYL (Estonian Union of Cooperative Housing Associations), has officially been nominated to be EU's Committee of the Regions rapporteur on ‘Smart, sustainable and affordable housing’. With this opinion, the Committee of the Regions would take stock of the ongoing initiatives related to housing, look at the situation on the ground and call for a substantial new investment and policy focus on both private and public housing, which could boost the local economic base and help reverse demographic trends.

The strongly knitted team around pre-fab modular retrofits in Estonia is based on a Quadruple Helix collaboration model (academia, public sector, industry and civil society) between the Estonian government, EKYL and the Union of Wood Manufacturers, and TalTech University. The Estonian renovation model lays builds upon their competitive advantage – wood manufacturing to generate economic growth while meeting the EU renovation targets. The Drive 0 pilot project in Estonia has paved the way for a broader national renovation programme based on the pre-fabricated modular approach.


Contributing to unleash the solutions market potential

The fact is, there currently is no common market in Europe for retrofitting solutions. In other words, retrofitting solutions from one country are not insured in another country. Building product certifications are extremely tied to national schemes which blocks the exchange of sustainable regional construction products across national borders, and thus market uptake.

Anne van Stijn from AEDES (the Dutch Association of Social Housing Companies) believes that the key for scaling up innovative solutions lies in running a feasibility assessment. The Dutch social housing sector has extensive experience in testing innovative renovation systems and process. Some of these solutions will be more adaptable to larger volumes. Housing providers together with industries should put the focus on the suitable variants. More importantly, circularity is not the only priority for social housing providers but other range of issues come into play when investing in renovation such as liveability, energy poverty, social cohesion or employment. From moment one, the feasibility perspective has to come into practice, and where other priorities exist an integrated renovation strategy should be considered.

Acknowledging that renovation goes beyond materials and energy, but also includes people and local socio-economic needs is an important step forward towards market uptake of circularity methods. In this regard, representing the position of SLRB (Société du Logement de la Région de Bruxelles-Capitale), Ingrid Cotrina asks for more funding for social housing providers to invest in social engagement of tenants during renovation.


From practice to policy to ignite transformation

The EU targets to renovate the built environment an all the accompanying regulations and obligations has split policy positions amongst stakeholders in the building sector.

On one side, architects (represented by Architects Council of Europe), property owners (UIPI), and construction SMEs (EBC) ask for more individualised policy approaches to renovation that consider the diversity of architectural typologies and multi-internship structures. A call for conservation of cultural heritage and protection of historical buildings.

On the other side, the social, public and cooperative housing sector (represented by Housing Europe) supports a large-scale industrialised approach to renovation to help transform neighbourhoods and improves the economic viability of solutions.  The challenge for the sector representing 11% of the building stock in Europe, is on reducing carbon footprint without reducing the delivery of affordable homes. Housing providers are often in the crossroads of a wide range of decarbonisation pathways: pre-fab panels with recycled, bio-based materials; using these materials alone; the design for disassembly approach; or design traditionally while reducing demolition waste. Research institutes at local level play a key role in assisting and advising housing providers in identifying the most appropriate renovation strategies for a specific spatial context.

Similarly, while some sectors ask for a pause in regulations, others push for regulatory adjustments and new industrial policies and support schemes to accelerate housing renovation. Indeed, changes in the financing conditions of social, public and cooperative housing providers are needed to exponentially increase renovation investments. From increasing the pre-financing of projects, to supporting maintenance costs to loan products adapted to whole-of-life cycle projects. Next to this, effectively inserting circularity requirements in public procurement is still work-in-progress. At organisational level, local authorities still have to integrate material flows and regional value chains into spatial planning. Finally, the lack of information about the materials used in buildings, the use of structural materials and the certification of local bio-based materials remain key regulatory issues to be addressed.


Experiences from the projects to revolutionise construction

EU-funded projects are one of the best options for making innovation accessible, and the social and affordable housing sector makes no exception. While trying to demonstrate different innovation pathways to change the way we build and renovate, covering areas such as prefabrication, circularity, off-site construction, modularization, digitalization, and industrialisation, success was not achieved without failures. Indeed, innovation leads to unexpected outcomes. Compared to a linear economy where success is based on cost-efficiency, in a circular economy that is based on value retention, failure is about taking a different avenue than expected, or achieving a different outcome.

Making the deep renovation process more attractive, environmentally friendly, faster and cost effective for consumers (social and affordable housing providers, property owners and architects) by combining circularity, product innovation and process innovation; and demonstrating circular renovation solutions in combination with local drivers - this has been the core work of one of Housing Europe's EU-funded projects Drive 0 for the past 4 years. Nearing the project's end, on December 2023, we gathered with similar initiatives in Brussels to learn from one another: StepUP, INFINITE, BuildUP Speed, PLURAL, and GigaRegioFactory.

Another relevant example for the sector is the BuildUPspeed project, setting up pop-up factories on-site for fast home renovation, highlighted issues experienced around guarantees and liabilities for innovative demonstrators. Housing Europe will back the development of business models and the increased adoption of BuildUPspeed tools and services by leveraging a diverse range of distribution channels. Domofrance Logement Social, located in Bordeaux, and Instituto Valenciano de la Edificacion serve as the project's sector representatives.

Still one of the main challenges of industrialised housing renovation solutions remains finding a balance between standardisation and customisation. The voice of construction SMEs in Europe, the European Builders Confederation (EBC) believes that industrialised solutions are not suitable for the diversity of buildings in Europe, with different energy performance levels and construction periods. In this regard, rooting renovation to local drivers is key, customising solutions to the context based on: people, materials, energy.

Housing Europe Policy Director Julien Dijol wanted to put forward that 10% of the total stock in Europe is social, public, coop housing, representing a considerable share of the overall sector. The challenge for these housing providers is on reducing carbon footprint without reducing the delivery of affordable homes. While the circular approach is clearly important, it can be a vast and confusing term. The affordable housing sector has to make a decision on what is the best solution to reduce its carbon footprint: types of materials to be used (recycled, bio-massed), select an approach (design for disassembly, or the traditional way while reducing demolition waste), etc. Research institutes at local level could help these organisations identify the most suitable options.

It is generally agreed that technological innovation has been achieved. Our efforts should now be on leaving the demonstrator phase behind and jumping into replication and commercialisations, making it affordable some more citizens benefit from these solutions.

Conclusion: scale, efficiency and speed in housing renovation can only be achieved by identifying the local needs.