‘It’s the housing, stupid’: How homes harm our health

A leaky roof can have a real impact on health. [Shutterstock]

This article is part of our special report Healthy buildings: Good for our wallets?.

Most of Europe’s buildings are more than forty years old and are largely inefficient. Poorly insulated, leaky buildings have a real impact on inhabitant and worker health, according to the latest edition of the Healthy Homes Barometer.

One out of six Europeans report living in an unhealthy building, with factors like leaky roofs, damp, inadequate natural light and poor temperature control all affecting well-being.

That means nearly 90 million people in this part of the world alone live in what can be described as inadequate housing. Two-thirds of building stock is more than four decades old and only 10% can be graded A or B in energy performance certification.

Currently, that problem is not being dealt with effectively because annual renovation rates do not exceed 2%. This is largely because there are few incentives to do so, non-financial barriers and a lack of awareness about the benefits.

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But that is set to change going into the next decade after the European Union finalised a set of rules known as the Energy Performance of Buildings Directive (EPBD), which tasks member states with drafting long-term renovation strategies.

The updated legislation leaves the nitty-gritty of how to boost renovation rates mostly up to EU countries, due to often wild differences between buildings across Europe, but tools like incentives and improving access to information are all expected to be used.

EU energy chief Maroš Šefčovič said that “it is essential that we base our decisions on well-founded, comparable and reliable data. That is the only way for us to face the housing  challenge and deliver on our energy and climate commitments.”

Although focusing on energy performance, given that buildings gobble up 40% of power consumption and produce a third of our emissions, the EPBD also covers indoor health and comfort.

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A last-minute push by energy activists has convinced the European Commission to include indoor air quality considerations into the revised Energy Performance of Buildings Directive (EPBD). Making it happen on the ground could prove a bigger challenge, however.

The buildings doctor is IN

The 2018 edition of the Healthy Homes Barometer builds on the finalised EPBD text by delving into what factors harm the healthy environment of our home and, for the first time, our workspaces.

The fourth iteration of the Healthy Homes Barometer reveals that homes which are too cold in winter are the most damaging health indicator. Low temperatures can affect the immune system, make heart problems more likely and increase the risk of hypothermia.

Other factors like damp and inadequate lighting can lead to problems like asthma and a poor sleep cycle.

For single-family homes, rather than apartment blocks and buildings, badly insulated houses can double the chances of being struck by poor health, according to the research.

Indeed, single-family homes mean increased chances across the board of feeling poorly, because buildings of that type have more exterior elements, like roofs, windows, walls and doors. It is basically a case of them having more things that can go wrong.

During the launch of the barometer at an event in Brussels last week (26 September), Velux public affairs expert Ingrid Reumert said that “energy efficiency used to be the main paradigm for buildings, now it’s health”.

Poor housing linked to rising asthma cases in Europe

One in six Europeans – equivalent to the entire population of Germany – live in a damp or mouldy building, which increases their chances of getting illnesses such as asthma, according to a new study.

Although the study acknowledged that income has an impact on the chances of having a house that is liable to affect your health, it also found that income has no impact once a problem presents itself.

The barometer explains that when a home has, for example, a leaky roof, those in the top 25% of available income are equally as likely to experience ill health effects as the bottom 25%, concluding that homes themselves are the problem, rather than economic situation.

Single-family homes will have to be given additional focus as Europe gears up for the big renovation, given that suburban populations grew on average 54% more than urban ones between 1961 and 2011, as people felt the allure and draw of more space and comfort away from city centres.

The healthy homes barometer warned that the ‘burbs are often “overlooked” when it comes to the health question and called on national governments and industry “to focus on the needs and opportunities presented by these growing communities”.

Andreas Hermelink, an expert with energy consultants Ecofys, said that new renovation strategies should prioritise unhealthy buildings, adding that a European Commission-sponsored study is ongoing into actual renovation rates across Europe.

Banker: ‘Massive positive change’ underway for building renovation

The energy performance contract model can turn energy efficiency renovation of buildings into a truly popular policy objective among politicians in Central and Eastern Europe because it can be done without any use of public money and has no impact on public debt, says Ivan Lesay.

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