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The building sector accounts for 40% of the total energy use and for 36% of Europe’s CO2 emissions. It generates 9% of the total EU 27 GDP and 8% of the total employment. Since the EU aims at reductions in domestic greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions of 80% by 2050 (compared to 1990 level), the building stock – in particular the housing sector – plays a major role in achieving the 20-20-20 strategic targets. Without consequently exploiting the huge savings potential attributed to the building stock, the EU will miss its GHG reduction targets, but there are many other advantages in reducing the environmental footprint of buildings that should be carefully considered.


Already in its 2008 World Energy Outlook the International Energy Agency, IEA, focused on the climate adaptation and energy saving potential of European cities. “Cities are key players in the fight against climate change and the main challenge to test our capacity to adapt. Energy consumption in urban areas – mostly in transport and housing – is responsible for a large share of CO2 emissions and at the same time emission per person is much lower in urban areas compared to non-urban areas. The density of urban areas allows for more energy-efficient forms of housing, transport and service provision. Consequently, measures to address climate change may be more efficient and cost-effective in big and compact cities than in less densely built space.”


As highlighted in the Cities of Tomorrow report, “Energy efficiency in buildings is directly related to social inclusion and the alleviation of energy poverty. […] 90% of social housing consists of buildings in need of refurbishment. These buildings often have low energy efficiency with many tenants living in fuel poverty. Better energy efficiency is key to alleviating the poverty of the most vulnerable, while increasing the quality of life for all citizens. Cities are faced with the challenge of upgrading existing housing stock and finding the most adequate solutions, while knowing that systems will evolve. Solutions, therefore, need to be flexible, cost-effective and sustainable. Energy efficiency may play a particular role in cities of EU-12 Member States where there are still a number of large housing estates with very high energy consumption. In some countries, flats have been privatised, resulting in a lack of effective collective management and very few or no resources for renovation.


European Cities of tomorrow are places of green, ecological or environmental regeneration, but we should also make sure that “the heritage and architectural value of historic buildings and public spaces is exploited together with the development and improvement of the urban scene, landscape and place, and where local residents identify themselves with the urban environment. […] Cities have to build on their past to prepare the future. Some cities build on their specific traditions of production, on their architectural or cultural heritage as well as on their local and regional knowledge base. The specific attractiveness of a given city has to be seen in the context of a forward-looking scenario as an element of a broader urban transition.”


During a Hearing at the EU Parliament in 2009 Dr. Edmundo Werna explained the huge economic and employment potential of the building renovation and restoration sector: “The restoration of buildings, roads and other elements of the built environment with heritage value is a labour-intensive type of activity. Therefore, it has high employment content. Experience has shown that for the same level of investment in local construction, the use of labour-based technologies can create between two and four times more employment. In addition, the use of labour-intensive methods promotes small and medium enterprises, causes the drop of foreign exchange requirements by 50% to 60%, decreases overall cost by 10 to 30%, and reduces environmental impacts. It also implies the increased use of associated local resources.”


From the financial point of view it is important to note that a very large share of energy savings potential can be achieved at “negative costs”. Some of them may even produce buildings capable to produce more energy than they need, becoming part of the urban smart grid, but the greatest challenge is energy upgrading of the existing building stock at urban level: lowering energy demand, increasing energy efficiency and integrating renewable energies production at the scale of the urban fabric. The recast Energy Performance of Buildings Directive has introduced a strong focus on the existing building stock, encouraging the member states to support refurbishment and set higher energy standards for buildings undergoing renovation. “The rate of building renovation needs to be increased, as the existing building stock represents the single biggest potential sector for energy savings. Moreover, buildings are crucial to achieving the EU objective of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 80 – 95% by 2050 compared to 1990.”


Supporting investment in energy efficiency and renewable energies will be among the top priorities of the next programming period 2014-2020. According to the draft regulations published in late 2011 “in more developed and transition regions, at least 80% of ERDF resources at national level should be allocated to energy efficiency and renewables, innovation and SME support, of which at least 20 % should be allocated to energy efficiency and renewables. Less developed regions will have a broader range of investment priorities to choose from, reflecting their wider development needs. But they will have to devote at least 50 % of ERDF resources to energy efficiency and renewables, innovation and SME support”. Cities have to be prepared to this challenge, strengthening their territorial cohesion policies and sustainable urban development framework plans a.o. to take advantage of the 5 % of ERDF resources earmarked for sustainable urban development


For many years energy efficiency has been seen as an additional burden for planners and architects: buildings were conceived and designed as usual and energy efficiency was something to care about at the end, adding some insulation and advanced  technical equipment. The result was a traditional building with thicker walls, smaller windows with thick glasses, stubby volumes and clumsy appearance.  No surprise that this way of designing buildings has turned out  to be outmost unfit and frustrating for the designer, builders and end users. Nowadays there is a broader awareness that energy efficiency has to be among the design priorities from the very beginning of a project, yet there is high uncertainty on which the best solutions are, depending from context and design brief. Both research evidence and everyday practise show that there are no one-fits all solutions and that industrialisation does not have to be equal to standardisation. European cultural diversity shall be maintained and valorised also in energy efficient architecture, both in new buildings and refurbishment. With a broad range of exemplary project we will try to outline the features of a coherent design approach.


Workstream 6 of the URBACT 2012 Capitalisation Process will deal with the manifold challenges and potentials linked to reduction of energy footprint in the buildings sector, with specific focus on the housing sector as its most representative and sensitive component.

The initial key questions that will be put in discussion are the following:

  • How to help urban policy makers, industrial players, practitioners, end users and any other relevant actors to contribute to improve energy efficiency in the housing sector across Europe?

  • What decisions must be taken to upgrade the regulatory framework to facilitate mainstreaming of green building materials, renovation and building techniques in the housing sector?

  • Which are the most suitable financial tools to support energy efficiency housing policies at EU, National, Regional and Local levels?

  • How to make energy efficient renovation and construction attractive and sustainable for the housing sector, both in public and private ownership, developing offer and stimulate demand?

  • How to overcome opposition between prefabrication/renewables VS traditional materials and building techniques in the housing sector?

  • How to involve citizens in the design process of the building refurbishment in order to foster climate friendly lifestyles in climate friendly buildings?

  • How to solve the conflicts between conservation of heritage value and new needs in historic housing estates?


Professionals, research centers, public authorities, associations, but also individuals are invited to submit proposals for contributions to be included in workstream 6 as good practises, case studies, suggestions, ideas and dreams about an energy efficient (and high quality) built environment. You will participate to the content of an article for the next URBACT Tribune, to our online moderated discussion (blog) among experts and stakeholders at EU level, to the workshop at the URBACT Annual Conference in Copenhagen December 3-4, 2012 and to the definition of a set of specific Policy Recommendations.

Antonio Borghi, June 2012