Spotlight on condominiums: the EU’s orphan buildings

About the need to foster renovation coaching services in Europe


In many European Member States, the 3% renovation rate will only be achieved if policies also focus on collective renovation. Fortunately, valuable experience from the ground with a specific focus on multi-apartment buildings exists. At a one-day conference in Brussels, the six ACE-Retrofitting pilot cities (Liège, Paris, Antwerp, Maastricht, Aberdeen, Frankfurt) that are part of the Interreg NWE-funded project shed light on some of the  opportunities and challenges involved in supporting retrofit projects in condominiums.

Condominiums still a policy niche

Last week, during the Belgian Fair for Condominiums, the ACE-Retrofitting Conference brought together Belgian and European stakeholders, from both public authorities and private entities, working in the building sector. The political debate and a practitioner experience-sharing session revealed that condominiums still are, what might be called, an orphan amongst building types.

Especially in North-West Europe, many condominiums were built before 1970 and therefore require modernisation. While some pioneering local authorities have started putting specific efforts into working with co-owner groups and building professionals, the overall legal framework at European and national levels is still weak.

In mid-November 2019, the European Commission announced that it will release a housing renovation programme in December. It is meant to be ‘one of the flagships’ of the upcoming European Green Deal. We do not yet know what measures it will include. However, it is clear that reaching high renovation rates will require targeted support for homeowners. Or, even better,for groups of homeowners. What should that support look like and what can policy-makers learn from past successes? The conference panellists and participants exchanged experiences and methods around stakeholder involvement  and gave some guidance in  accelerating condominium retrofitting work.

Take a holistic approach

Policy-makers could take inspiration from the approaches that have been developed by the ACE-Retrofitting partners in the past three years. The participating local authorities and knowledge partners have designed a unique renovation coaching service for condominiums, supported by a number of concrete guidance documents such as the ACE-Retrofitting step-by-step tool. It helps to ease the often long and complex processes around retrofit projects in multi-apartment buildings.

Barbara de Kezel, from the Energy House Antwerp, reminded participants that only a holistic approach to condominium retrofits can bring success. Her 5 tips to anybody wanting to support stakeholders in such an endeavour are:

  1. Be there from A-Z in tailor-made coaching
  2. Carry out a masterplan audit to identify the necessary measures and describe them clearly in the specifications
  3. Focus on the decision-making process of co-owners: get them to buy into it from the start
  4. Build good relationships with service providers, clusters of professionals and federations of condominium owners
  5. Make sure appropriate financing products are available in your area

Indeed, a key lesson learnt by the pilot cities is that energy efficiency measures should go hand in hand with other necessary short and long-term measures.

“A deep retrofit of a house is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that shouldn’t be taken lightly”, said Thierry van Cauwenberg, energy consultant of the Vice-President of the Walloon Government and Minister for Climate, Energy and Mobility. This idea was also supported by Aurélie Beauvais from Solar Power Europe. The policy director called for a stronger framework and incentives for an integrated approach. Renovation is only one piece of the puzzle. Ms Beauvais also stressed the need to turn homeowners into prosumers and to increase the number of renewable energy communities in condominiums.

Vincent Spruytte, Vice-President of the French-Speaking Union of Property Managers supported the idea. According to him, condominiums which become energy producers could consequently cover the retrofitting cost with the revenues from energy sales.  He gave the example of the Marius Renard condominium in Brussels where a combined heat and power station generates cash that can be used for renovation work. Participants pointed out that this solution is relevant for large buildings. For smaller ones, which is the majority of building stock,  coaching activities remain key to the process.     

The city of Paris is a forerunner in the field of condominiums. Through the city-wide renovation programme called “Eco-rénovons Paris” launched in 2013, the city has already provided guidance to 10% of its condominiums. Renewables are included in the specifications for condominium retrofits. Antoine Guéguen, director of the programme, presented the pioneering work that has been carried out by the municipal climate agency (APC).  CoachCoPro, a digital platform and a series of coaching activities for homeowners and professionals, served as a blueprint for the ACE-Retrofitting partner cities. The Parisian success also required patience: it took several years to design the coaching service and its tools, now used in 22 French towns. In the coming years, the Paris Climate Agency will even go a step further: in order to benefit from economies of scale, APC plans to pool several condominiums in, what it calls, a concerted renovation zone (zone de rénovation concertée).

Better data for better regulation

Representatives of the Brussels Region government, the Walloon region as well the Flemish Energy Agency shared their authority’s buildings strategy. Julien Simon from the Brussels Region Ministry for Environment and Energy talked about the climate law that is currently under preparation. In order to reach carbon-neutrality by 2050, specific measures are planned for the building sector: one of them is the obligation starting in 2030 to renovate a building if its audit reveals a need for it. Such an audit will have to be systematically carried out every 5 years by the owners.

Condominiums are also a focus point in Flanders, a region which has 130,000 condos. Roel Vermeiren from the Flemish Energy Agency (VEA) stated they are working on the Long-Term Renovation Strategy as an annex of the National Energy and Climate Plan. The policy recommendations from VEA to the Belgian government will include a renovation advice programme for condominiums and the option for co-owners to get a grant that would help finance  advice. Moreover, they have developed a public-private grant to lengthen the loan period for work (from currently 10 to up to 30 years). VEA has been listening to ACE-Retrofitting partner Antwerp to integrate advice from the ground into the strategy that will be finalised in early 2020.

Antoine Guégen, Emmanuelle Causse and Aurélie Beauvais © Marc Schlitz

Emmanuelle Causse from the International Union of Property Owners pointed out that basic data and knowledge about condominiums is still largely missing in Europe. Improving data collection and monitoring would be a first, important step to designing better policies in the field. That said, the afternoon discussions at the conference amongst local practitioners revealed similar issues at the municipal level: Paris, Maastricht and Antwerp reported the difficulty in finding data and monitoring progress on condominium retrofits. To counter this, Paris has just started to develop an observatory of condominium retrofits to make the market tangible and visible. 

And how does the building sector see condominiums? Jean-Pierre Liebaert from the Belgian Construction Federation pointed out that condominiums are a big challenge, notably because of the dichotomy between the private and common spaces of a building. According to him, even though the professionals play an undeniably important role in the execution of retrofit work, the most important aspect remains the project design itself: it is crucial to set up a good project in line with the initial budget (as overshooting costs is a recurring issue).

Vincent Spruytte from the French-Speaking Union of Property Owners also promoted the need for a more professional approach by syndics that would go beyond purely administrative tasks. As one example, the managing agents need to be more aware of on energy topics in particular regarding the opportunities to produce energy.

During this 1-day conference, discussions were lively, sometimes controversial. What all panellists agreed on, though, is the need for strong linkages between governance levels for effective policies and between stakeholders for efficient and lasting retrofit projects.

Here are some conclusions from the debate on what is still missing for more efficient condominiums, especially at the EU level:

  • Policy instruments that take into account long term goals.
  • Integrated plans for the building including how you can generate energy, improve safety etc.
  • Policies that stimulate integrated measures, combining health, energy savings etc.
  • A thorough collection of information and data on condominiums
  • More places where all stakeholders can meet
  • More attention paid to retrofitting of condominiums
  • Increase capacity-building (training support) for building professionals and trustees
  • Make financial or fiscal help available at all steps of the renovation process, including the very first ones, like audits.
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Lessons learnt, advice and very practical measures from ACE-Retrofitting partners are summed up in the guidebook “Boosting energy retrofits in condominiums – Approaches for local authorities to facilitate change”.  

Find all the conference materials (presentations, photos, programme) here.