There isn’t one renovation wave

A district-level approach is needed to move quickly and deeply


Publication date

March 26, 2020

Policies to promote home renovation have often failed in the past because they have taken the obvious, and incorrect, starting point – the home. Instead, we need to recognize that homes are part of a local ecosystem of intermixed buildings, businesses, energy and people. By incorporating all of those elements into a district-level plan we can significantly reduce emissions from heating and cooling and increase the comfort and health of citizens at home, work and school.

By adopting a district-level plan for the renovation wave, we can assess the assets and needs on a broader area and use them in the most efficient way possible. At the same time, we need a broad array of tools to motivate and enforce change in different kinds of buildings, building owners and occupants. But the assessments and tools are only useful if they can be wielded effectively by local authorities. That is why the EU’s ‘Renovation Wave’ must include a significant effort to build capacity and knowledge in Europe’s cities.

In reality, this might mean that in an area with significant industry generating excess heat the focus should be on investing in a district heating network for surrounding residences rather than promoting heat pumps to replace gas boilers. The Horizon 2020 Hotmaps project has already developed a tool for mapping and planning heating and cooling needs on a local, regional and national basis.

Social housing, schools and municipal buildings as ideal starting points

District-level renovation plans can also better identify the ‘quick win’ projects to accelerate the renovation wave and provide a foundation for a larger energy transition. Social housing, schools and various municipal buildings are ideal starting points because they have a single owner, access to administrative support and tend to be larger, more standardized buildings. This makes the renovation simpler and also provides an opportunity to significantly grow the construction industry skills at a local level.

Once renovated, these buildings are ideal starting points for community energy projects. In this example in Mouscron, Belgium rooftop PV on a school provides green electricity for 200 neighboring houses that otherwise are not ideally suited to PV themselves and even if they were, this is a much more efficient way of generating power with one large, local installation as opposed to dozens of smaller ones.

Set renovation milestones for buildings

Commercial and retail buildings represent another quick win in a district-level plan. With the right funding framework, costs can be minimal and a structure of schedule of mandatory efficiency targets can drastically cut emissions over time. The result is a higher value asset for commercial owners without fear of being undercut on rents by buildings that forego investment. The exact timings and standards would need to be set locally, but one possibility would be to set a long-term building efficiency target (say A-rated by 2030) with milestones for buildings to be at least C-rated by 2023, B-rated by 2026 and finally A-rated by 2030.

Things become more complicated in single-family dwellings and condominium buildings with a mixture of owners and tenants. The costs, disruption, diversity of buildings and planning mean that these projects will necessarily take more time to get rolling. But as 43% of Europeans live in apartment buildings of some kind, it is a vital sector to tackle. Projects like the Horizon 2020 INNOVATE and the INTERREG North-West Europe ACE-Retrofitting show that there are a number of concrete steps, like one-stop shops, that can be taken to smooth the path for renovations.

A series of waves lapping on the shore

Work must begin simultaneously on all four of these different sectors – especially those that require more time to deliver significant results. A district-level renovation wave as outlined above should see significant year-on-year reductions in energy consumption and emissions. Think of it as a series of waves lapping on the shore. First, social housing, schools, industry and commercial buildings increase their comfort and reduce their emissions, as they do, the next wave comes as houses and apartment buildings benefit from low-carbon heat and locally generated green energy. That is followed by the renovation of houses and apartments, lowering consumption and emissions even further.                

Of course, a district-level renovation plan can only work with a strong city that has the skills necessary to plan and coordinate all of this work. That is why the EU Commission must prioritize capacity building at a local level as part of its renovation wave. Projects such as the EU City Facility are a good beginning but much more needs to be done. By increasing the local knowledge and necessary skills we can finally deliver what everyone has a right to – a good home.