Brussels project shines light on muggy battle for healthy homes

Before and after photographs of the Velux RenovActive project in Brussels' Anderlecht commune

This article is part of our special report Health activists join EU building renovation crusade.

A social housing project in one of Brussels’ poorest neighbourhoods aimed to demonstrate that renovation doesn’t have to be expensive and brings many other side benefits – a notion that resonates with what policymakers are trying to achieve on the other side of town, from the posher buildings of the EU district.

It’s fitting to find the RenovActive social housing development project in the ‘Bon Air’ (Fresh Air) neighbourhood of the Brussels commune of Anderlecht. Velux, the Danish company that led the project, makes roof windows and skylights, while the crisp, clean lines of the renovated two-story dwelling contrast sharply with many of the surrounding houses, most of which are in various stages of disrepair.

Behind the affordable RenovActive project lies a colossal and ambitious pan-European effort to renovate Europe’s building stock, in a bid to improve health, boost growth and jobs and secure ambitious climate change targets.

It’s clear they have their ‘renovation’ work cut out for them.

The European Commission has vowed to put “energy efficiency first” in its plans for an Energy Union, arguing that the Paris Agreement on climate change justified ramping up EU plans to slash energy consumption.

But lawmakers in the European Parliament are fighting to ramp up the Commission’s proposed 30% energy savings target for 2030, saying a more ambitious 40% target is more fitted to achieve the bloc’s decarbonisation objectives.

Backed by an army of energy and environmental stakeholders, they argue a more ambitious objective would increase renovation rates from a paltry 1% to 3%, add 1 million more jobs, lower energy imports, boost investor confidence and remove uncertainties about the future of the EU building market.

However, some member states are already looking for ways to slow things down, fearful of the economic burden.

Where they see lower productivity, supporters of energy efficiency see smarter productivity precisely because people will live and work in healthier homes and offices.

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Taking the tour

The RenovActive project is tangible evidence of this argument.

Completed in 2015 with social housing company Le Foyer Anderlechtois, owner of 3,600 housing units in the commune, the 80 m² semi-detached house from the 1920s was renovated according to the RenovActive concept. It focuses on the health and well-being of residents, ensuring they enjoy living comfort, energy efficiency and minimal environmental impact.

Most importantly, the concept is reproducible, affordable and adaptable to the type of residence, techniques and climate involved. For instance, a gas boiler was used in the RenovActive project (rather than a geothermal pump) given its popularity and familiarity on the Belgium market. This flexibility is also clearly a riposte to the member states that lament, and therefore reject, what they claim is a one-size-fits-all approach to energy efficiency.

A tour around the RenovActive project is an obvious and lasting reminder of the universal need for indoor air quality and well-being amongst EU citizens, whether at home or at work.

Architects who developed the concept for the house used daylight and natural ventilation to make it as comfortable as possible while guaranteeing optimum energy efficiency.

The house has been extended via a flat-roofed wooden annex, where the kitchen is located. It enjoys a “living roof”, completely covered with vegetation planted over a waterproofing membrane. The annex helps create a bright, healthy and comfortable living space, bringing light to the building and ensuring a view of the garden. In addition, the staircase was moved to the centre of the house to provide maximum natural ventilation and light.

Necessities, not luxuries

These are not luxuries, they’re necessities, according to the promoters of the project.

One in six Europeans – equivalent to the entire population of Germany – live in a damp our mouldy building, which doubles their chances of getting illness such as asthma, according to the 2017 edition of the Healthy Homes Barometer.

Europeans living in an “unhealthy” building – with a leaking roof, walls or foundation – are almost twice as likely to report poor health, and are 40% more likely to suffer from asthma, found the report, which was published today (31 May) on Healthy Buildings Day in the European Parliament.

The overall health costs associated with asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease is estimated at €82 billion per year, found the study, which is based on Eurostat data and supported by Velux.

There is growing awareness about the poor quality of indoor air, which can be exacerbated by bad heating and insulation. Ensuring homes – but also factories and offices – are properly ventilated is seen as key to tackling health risks linked to indoor air pollution.

“It is alarming to read that one out of six Europeans reports living in an unhealthy building,” said Vice-President for the Energy Union, Commissioner Maroš Šefčovič.

“If just 2% of European homes were renovated with an emphasis on health every year, by 2050 we could halve the number of Europeans who live in a damp and unhealthy home,” said Michael Rasmussen, SVP of Brand at the Velux Group.

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Let the sun shine

This explains why the RenovActive project focuses on providing maximum daylight and natural ventilation.

Velux used a simulator to visualise daylight levels in the building, resulting in excellent levels of natural light following the renovation. In view of the glazed surfaces, which guarantee levels of natural light and passive solar gains in winter, excess heat is controlled using fully automated solar protection. The opening and closing of the exterior blinds will depend on the hours of sunshine and the outdoor temperature.

To ensure a healthy indoor atmosphere and a maximum of fresh air in the house, a natural ventilation system was fitted, making it possible to easily open or close windows. Sensors monitoring levels of humidity, temperature and CO2 are integrated into the ventilation unit and control the opening of the windows, guaranteeing optimum indoor air quality.

In winter, air is let in by ventilation flaps integrated into the windows, ensuring ventilation levels adapt to user needs in real time. This system also saves energy, as it avoids excessive ventilation. The house has been designed with optimum insulation in mind, with RenovActive reducing heating needs from 385 Kw/h/m²/year to around 19 Kw/h/m²/year, a major achievement, given the tens of millions of Europeans who currently live in energy poverty.

Inaction on building renovation is ‘costing lives’

Energy efficiency renovation can alleviate fuel poverty and bring a raft of health and societal benefits. While the EU could do more to boost renovation, several governments have shown that effective answers can be found at a national level.

Eat, or heat?

The Healthy Homes Barometer points out that on cold days, 49 million Europeans face a dilemma of whether they will heat their home or eat. The health consequences are enormous – twice as many people have poor health when living in energy poverty.

Looking over the European economic landscape, one in three people have difficulties making ends meet, and over half of them live in a cold dwelling. 45% of them actually keep temperatures down in their homes in order to lower their energy bills. Europeans who live in energy poverty are almost three times as likely to live in a damp, unhealthy building.

“Buildings with a good indoor environment can reduce healthcare costs and are a way to tackle energy poverty,” Šefčovič said, adding this was recognised in the Commission’s proposal for a revision of the Energy Performance of Buildings Directive.

“This further reaffirms the importance of tackling energy poverty through building renovations,” Šefčovič added.

54 million Europeans must choose between eating and heating

An estimated 54 million Europeans suffer from energy poverty, according to the European Commission analysis, which blames rising prices, low income and energy inefficient homes for forcing people to choose between eating or heating.

Where’s the money?

Private homeowners are key to achieving a more energy-efficient building stock, according to the Healthy Homes Barometer.

Total available capital in households across Europe totals over €30 trillion. Research conducted by Copenhagen Economics reveals that the available capital of an average European household is €139,000. Taking the national distributions of wealth into account, this means 70% of European households are able to afford a staged renovation.

Latent demand, not funding, is biggest obstacle for building renovation

A lack of demand for housing renovation – not a funding shortage – is the biggest obstacle to reaping the benefits of energy savings, seen as an unexploited ‘golden goose’ to tackle climate change and improve energy security.

Renovations not only deliver long-term savings through improved energy efficiency but also offer improved living conditions, as well as making a significant contribution to the future value of a property.

“We want private funding working to help deliver energy efficiency,” said Bendt Bendtsen, a Danish conservative MEP and the rapporteur for the Energy performance of buildings directive (EPBD) in the European Parliament. “Pension funds are a perfect example. Private money needs long-term security for investment, hence the need for a clear political priority of energy efficiency to activate the private money.”

The revision of the EU’s Energy Performance of Buildings Directive (EPBD), which seeks to deliver quality and modernity in the building stock, is working its way through the European Parliament.

Spanish EQUO lawmaker Florent Marcellesi (Greens/EFA), one of the EPBD shadow rapporteurs, believes that “a holistic, integrated approach” is a must.

“For healthy buildings, all factors such as insulation, replacement of windows, ventilation, as well as the interaction of the building in its neighbourhood (the energy system, the mobility system, etc.) must be seen together. That is why we favour the approach of deep or staged deep renovations, which apply this approach.”

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Healthy home

The new residents of the RenovActive project, a family of political refugees from Guinea, are deeply content with their new home, given just how far removed it is from the squalid private accommodation they were housed in prior, one which resulted in repeated health problems for the family and need for medical attention.

The push to ensure that families living in renovated homes such as this seek to make them the norm, and not the exception.

Just across town, in the heart of the EU quarter, many are insisting that the current level of ambition on energy efficiency isn’t sufficient.

Marcellesi underlines that “a 30% energy efficiency target means business, as usual, 40% means reaping cost effective potential and associated benefits on job creation, energy poverty and health. It actually triggers the necessary investments.”

He concludes with a warning. “if we shy away from ambition, we slow down the development of investments, and we put several sectors and associated jobs at risk, leave our citizens in energy poverty situations empty-handed and don’t live up to the commitments we have taken in Paris”.

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