Social Housing: Surfing the renovation wave

by Sebastien Garnier, Innovation and Project Manager - Housing Europe

by Marion Brunet, Project Assistant - Housing Europe

8 October 2020 | Reading 6 mins.

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The Renovation Wave will be soon sweeping across Europe. Led by the European Commission as part of its Green Deal, the EU is attempting to pave the way for a decarbonized and clean energy system by revolutionizing the building sector. The HEART project, funded by the Horizon program, is one of the harbingers of that revolution, and offering new opportunities for social housing.

With over 100 years of know-how, public, cooperative and social housing providers have shaken up the architectural and urban landscape of residential buildings. In the past, one of their main roles was to provide better housing for the working poor and the middle class, and prevent the alarming public health risks in urban areas. These days they are taking on a new challenge: improving the quality of their housing stock to limit energy poverty; increasing housing affordability; and lowering the environmental impact of buildings and residents.

Through the renovation of homes and communities they have been able to build a strong portfolio of innovative projects to ensure cost-effectiveness and performance. The digital hub for housing evolutions shows these latest achievements. But creativity cannot stop there. The EU Green Deal and the upcoming “Renovation Wave” require a shift to another gear in order to provide more sustainable, warm homes – for everyone.

Out-of-the-box solutions are already emerging. The sector is one of the key partners in Europe behind the development of pre-fabricated and integrated renovation concepts that offer better outcomes in terms of delivery speed, cost, affordability, comfort and end-user requests. But this is still a niche market, raising questions about the organisation of the sector, including the investment, installation costs and establishing the main benefits for the residents. Through a market review, twelve organisations – housing providers and renovation companies – have been interviewed about the potential of different models of renovation toolkits in Europe. The departure was the EU-funded HEART project, which started back in 2017 with still another year to run. It is developing and testing a number of components that promise to facilitate renovation. These include: a multifunctional pre-fabricated facade system; universal photovoltaic tiles; highly efficient water storage tanks; battery packs; and a cloud-based platform to support housing managers and tenants in achieving optimal energy use and low emission levels.

HEART keeps at its core the spirit of innovation and modernisation of buildings.

Breaking barriers

The social housing sector is a key actor for such renovation toolkits because it can potentially commit to purchasing in bulk, which is essential to reach the scale required to invest in renovation factories where the elements are built. However, the social housing sector needs the prices of renovation toolkits to be affordable before placing such large orders. To scale up production companies need a minimum order size. So, while prefabrication is key for the future of renovation, the market is currently facing a ‘chicken or the egg’ situation, and seems to need more time to mature. Energiesprong is solving this in several countries by creating market development teams that bring together the supply and demand sides, while also tackling technological and regulatory barriers. The model promises to effectively reduce the costs of renovation, lower housing and energy costs, and increase home comfort – all while offering sustainable, affordable homes to European citizens. As Fabian Viehrig from GDW, the Federal Association of German Housing and Real Estate Companies said, “The most important thing is to reduce the complexity of energy renovations and to eliminate uncertainties regarding costs and time. If it is then possible to generate attractive prices, the breakthrough could be achieved.”

The flexibility to facilitate change

During the research of the business case for renovation toolkits, a second question popped up: how adaptable are pre-fabricated renovation toolkits actually in practice? As usual, one size rarely fits all and most of the building stock is far from uniform. Paul Sachot, from Est Métropole Habitat, raises the question of “how to separate the toolkits, with only the facade’s renovation for some buildings, and a more complete renovation for other?” In reality, the industrialisation of rehabilitation processes often lacks adaptability, making it challenging to implement on a broad ensemble of buildings. Instead of having a single solution, some social housing providers said that they would rather prefer seeing a diversified supply and having the possibility to choose what might suit buildings, tenants and local realities best. In that sense, for social housing providers, further developments are required in terms of ‘mass-customization’, step-by-step renovations, modular design and local sourcing of materials and skills.

Technologies are also evolving, often being one step ahead of the renovation projects in social housing which are typically planned several years in advance. “Another challenge is to stay ahead of innovations. Product innovations in this sector are really quick, and by the time they are put to mass-production they might already be old-fashioned. Our factory needs to be flexible to adapt to innovations” explained Ulla-Britt Krämer from the INDU-ZERO project, co-funded by the Interreg Programme 2014 – 2020.

HEART keeps at its core the spirit of innovation and modernisation of buildings. The different digital solutions – such as the cloud-based algorithm connecting the energy systems in the toolkit – could play a decisive role in increasing the energy performance of social housing, resulting in economic benefits for tenants.

Riding the wave

Speaking to Nicolas Cailleau from the Housing Europe member in France (l’Union Sociale pour Habitat – USH) highlighted that cloud-based services could offer the sector a clearer overall picture of the energy performance of buildings as well. “Social housing providers need to have a simple cartography of their stock’s performance to be able to position themselves and make long-term plans. They need to identify their stock’s needs to understand the potential demand existing on the area”, Cailleau further explained.

The Renovation Wave, the Horizon 2020 Green Deal call and the Just Transition Mechanism could provide opportunities to further develop innovations that provide those in social housing with better homes while contributing to environmental goals. While it is early to talk about a developed market for pre-fabricated renovation toolkits, recent innovation shows some promise in the industry’s approach to the huge needs facing the social housing sector in terms of renovation works in the coming years and decades. If we are able to knock down some of the barriers and reach a crucial scale of investments, renovation toolkit concepts could become mainstream and help in making homes more accessible, more affordable, and simply better places to live.


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