Not upgrading buildings can lead to social disaster

Why encouraging condominium retrofits fights more than climate change

Last year, three buildings collapsed in the city centre of Marseille. It killed eight people and shocked thousands. Only a year earlier, the Greenfell fire tragedy in London killed 72 people and left hundreds of families homeless. This is the top of an iceberg that floats everywhere in Europe. Large parts of the existing building stock are in need of modernisation and better energy performances. How can this happen? And how can we avoid dramas of this kind?

Health and safety at stake

For several years, my friend Hannah lived in a damp flat in the Brussels neighbourhood of Schaerbeek. Whenever I came to her place, I was shocked to see large black spots covering her bathroom and bedroom walls. Mould had creeped in overtime and was one of the reasons for Hannah being regularly sick. I thought that one day she’d be hospitalized for breathing issues – or because she’d have electrocuted herself in her kitchen. The electricity wiring there was completely out of current safety standards. Hannah’s flat dated from the 60s and her landlord did not really see why he should invest in modernisation: Hannah was still alive and paid a good monthly rent.

Hannah is not an exception. Nor is her landlord. All over Europe, flats and buildings are underinvested. By consequence, energy is wasted and residents excessively financially burdened. This is particularly true for multi-apartment buildings. There is actually no reliable data available to know what share they take in the European residential building stock. In 2017 – and that is one of the rare figures that exists – more than 4 out of every 10 persons (41.9 %) in the EU-28 lived in flats (Eurostat). In Paris, for example, 34% of fuel poor live in condominiums (source). Recent studies show that, in average, the quality of rental housing in Europe is inferior to owner-occupied housing. It seems the landlord-tenant dilemma is eternal…

The condominium challenge

This said, repairs and single flat sustainable renovations are not enough. Energy performance, energy bills and comfort only improve significantly through large-scale measures such as high grade external wall insulation, cavity wall insulation, roof insulation, and integration of renewables for the whole building. Deep retrofits of this kind require a coordinated effort of all flat owners.

Photo by Sérgio Rola on Unsplash

Some landlords are ignorant and stingy. Others do know what needs to be done, but shy away from a deep retrofit of the whole building: reaching a consensus on measures with other owners, finding money and experienced craftsmen, coordinating the project – all this is scary.

Helping residents in multi-apartment blocks on retrofits now can prevent fuel poverty, health and safety issues. This is especially true for the most fragile residents. Public support programmes rare very much needed to speed up the retrofitting of condominiums in Europe. Local authorities or energy agencies are the right facilitators, both for co-owners as well as for experts from building-related professions.


In order to mitigate the social impacts of not or badly renovated buildings, Scotland has energy efficiency legislation in place such as Energy Efficiency Standard for Social Housing (EESSH), as well as the ‘tolerable standard’ for all living accommodation in buildings, and the repairing standard for all rented properties in Scotland. The EESSH aims to encourage landlords to improve the energy efficiency of social housing in Scotland.

In Scotland, a particular municipal service exists to back co-owners in order to prevent social disaster: The “shared repairs – missing shares service”. Operated through local councils, they can pay the missing share when one or more owners are unwilling or unable to pay, the owner cannot be found after reasonable enquiries, or it is unreasonable to ask an owner to pay. Not all councils in Scotland use this power.

The Under One Roof Scotland programme can help organisations raise awareness about the need for maintenance and advise owners on how to deal with their co-owners, organise repairs and manage builders.

The Scottish city of Aberdeen participates in the EU-funded ACE-Retrofitting project. It tested a set of methods to overcome legal, human and financial barriers that are currently hindering energy retrofitting of condominiums.

Take the wide angle lens

We may need to think about different ways of tackling the social effects in housing. Targeted public support can prevent social disaster instead of reacting when it’s too late. Retrofitting support programs are investments more than expenses. Unhealthy housing is costly. As a matter of example, the British national health system currently spends about £1.4bn a year treating conditions that arise from poor housing (source).

A package solution has been tested in several European places though the ACE-Retrofitting project: it does not focus on the demand side only.  

In Paris, for example, a publicly-owned web platform called CoachCoPro addresses co-owners and building professionals alike. It guides condominium managers step-by-step in their retrofit project. At the same time, it provides professionals with a tool to dialogue, plan and track a retrofit project in condominiums. Online guidance is complemented, amongst others, by on-the-ground meetings, tailored coaching and site visits.

The quality of housing brings quality of life

Urban innovation is also about the residents’ wellbeing. Even though, in most Western European countries, only a minority of buildings may fall into the ‘poor housing’ category, public policies need to make this issue a priority. Upgrading buildings of the current stock, whether this is visible to the naked eye or not, brings positive social effects that go beyond a building’s four walls.

In Antwerp, where 71% of the residential (private) buildings are privately-owned, municipally-supported renovation masterplans do not only focus on the energy efficiency of the building. The masterplan also provides concise information on the status quo of the building. This applies to the common parts of the building and concerns the building quality and structure, technical installations, fire risks, public utilities, health and safety and general living conditions.

If more local authorities could take the driving seat in bringing homeowners and construction professionals together, setting up partnerships, deep retrofits could significantly grow in numbers. Europe’s building stock could help meet climate, social and economic targets at once.