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Following the first hearing and core group meeting that took place in Paris on the 23-24th of July I am thinking of how to re-formulate the key questions/issues to make them an attractive and stimulating focus for the roundtable working sessions at the next URBACT Annual conference.

The key questions proposed in my earlier outline paper were the following, but they were born to start our internal debate. They are too vague to engage a wider community.

  1. How to help urban policy makers, industrial players, practitioners, end users and any other relevant actors of the building sector to contribute to improve energy efficiency in the housing sector across Europe?
  2. 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?
  3. Which are the most suitable financial tools to support energy efficiency housing policies at EU, National, Regional and Local levels?
  4. 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?
  5. How to overcome opposition between prefabrication/renewables VS traditional materials and building techniques in the housing sector?
  6. How to involve citizens in the design process of the building refurbishment in order to foster climate friendly lifestyles in climate friendly buildings?
  7. How to solve the conflicts between conservation of heritage value and new needs in historic housing estates?

Being at the beginning of the process they were still quite general and not provocative or pointed enough for the purpose we want to use them. Now, bearing in mind that the parallel workshops will be made out of a sequence of 30 minutes sessions, key questions must be very clear and somehow radical, capable to stimulate a lively debate on the basic choices/policy recommendations we have to suggest to decisions makers. As usual in these kind of events there will be few space for subtile distinctions, we have to take into account some degree of simplification and provide a solid framework for exchange.

Therefore the participants of the first hearing were asked to write 3 questions/issues on a post-it and I committed to analise them and report back to the group. Please forgive me if I don’t list all the over 30 key questions proposals. What I am trying to do is to provide a synthesis of them on the basis of the discussions and the presentations we had. Of course the proposals are very diverse, reflecting the diversity of your background and point of view on the topics. On the other side there are quite a lot of ideas in common, reflecting the high degree of agreement between us during the meeting.

Trying to summarize to get a common denominator I have subdivided them into 4 main categories:

1) Knowledge & Skills

Enhance design process and design quality in a holistic perspective.

Provide guidance for retrofitting, do no harm to heritage, and improve the image of the city.

Bring design skills at the center of the retrofitting process (instead of profit making, bureaucracy, standardisation etc).

2) Behaviour & Lifestyle

Involve end users in the retrofitting process to maximise energy savings with correct operation of buildings

Adaptation of lifestyles to create class A end users for Class A homes.

3) Economy & Finance

Mainstreaming retrofitting at large scale to boost the economy, create jobs and growth.

Making financial support for retrofitting accessible, efficient and sustainable.

4) Regulations & Standards

Harmonise regulations in all European countries to mainstream energy retrofitting.

Provide common standards at European level to bring all countries at the same level of the most advanced ones.

But since I am still not happy with this kind of formulating key questions I would like to approach the issues from another point of view.

Surprisingly enough since I started focusing on the topic of Energy efficiency of buildings I have some doubts more than before. Step by step I am loosing certainties I used to have and the questions raising in my mind are somehow related to the issues above

I have some more doubts about knowledge & skills.

Exploring the field of technical solutions for energy retrofitting you can hardly find 2 people with the same attitude. Building materials and building techniques are highly questionable: single glazing VS double or triple glazing, air tight passivhaus VS breathing traditional masonry house, mineral wool VS sheep wool, zero energy houses VS district heating, deep renovation VS step by step improvements. Knowledge and skills are strictly related to the local supply chain (or at least they should be).

Is there a shared knowledge base from which we can deduct what are the most energy efficient building and retrofitting solutions?

Can we decide on a case by case basis which is the best technical solution and the optimal level of investment?

What are the most needed skills for energy retrofitting of the building stock: technical skills, creative skills, management skills or psychological skills?

Even about behaviours and lifestyle, I have a fundamental question.

Who do we think we are to influence people’s behaviour’?

Isn’t it true that houses should adapt to people’s needs, behaviour and lifestles instead of the other way around?

Shall the EU (or the State, or the building industry) decide which technical solution is the best or shall the nd user do it, supported by their architects?

Furthermore I have some more doubts about the economy of mass retrofitting and the most suitable financial tools to support them.

No doubt that energy retrofitting can boost the economy, create jobs and that it needs financial support, or at least no barriers and obstacles like conflicting regulations, but then:

what should be the perspective for the return of investment: 5 years, 20 years or 50 years?

Are there enough elements (in the market as in people’s life perspectives) to predict the future and implement large scale, long term retrofitting measures?

Strictly related to the economic and financial issues is the issue of regulations and standards.

Through the EPBD and EED European institutions are trying to harmonise the market of energy retrofitting, enabling big players of the building industry to work at European level. The European Committee for Standardisation is currently establishing a work group on “Energy efficiency of historic buildings” in the framework of the European Technical Committee on Conservation of Historical Heritage (CEN TC 346 WG8). Are the same regulations and standards for energy efficiency in the building sector capable to support SME’s, liberal profession and the big industries together, or is the latter simply trying to get control of the market?

Do regulations have to specify the (certified) technical solutions or just indicate the building performance required, taking into account the building specific features and leaving to the end user and designer freedom to choose the technical solution?

But most of all I have some doubts about energy, doubts that may question the overall approach of WS6:

Do we really have a problem with energy supply?

Do we really have to save energy at any price?

Looking at the development of renewable energies in the last few years it is not difficult to imagine that in the next decades we may have plenty of energy and that embodied energy of buildings will become much more relevant than energy consumption.

Research evidence shows that decentralisation of energy production and provision of efficient supply networks (district heating) we can by-pass the problem of energy retrofitting (at least in dense urban fabrics, which is what we call European cities) and so be free able to concentrate on more essential aspects of sustainable urban regeneration: heritage conservation, mobility, infrastructure, innovation.

Finally, closing the circle of my thoughts I am coming back to the beginning and the most fundamental question occurring is:

What do we mean by Building Energy Efficiency in European Cities?

  1. What kind of Energy (produced, consumed or embodied?) and buildings (future, existing, traditional, historical, residential, tertiary) are we talking about?

  2. What do we mean by Efficiency? What is efficient and for which purpose?

  3. What do we mean by European Cities, when we know that diversity is their main feature?

  4. or, in just one question: what does it mean sustainability related to the economic, social and environmental dimension of building energy efficiency in European cities?

In order to avoid endless discussions about principles and enable proper exchange of ideas during the workshop we are trying to provide an answer to the basic questions above in the forthcoming Tribune Article.

Having said that, my suggestion for the new 6 key questions for the workshop is as follows

About energy

1) Do we really have to save energy?

Is energy supply a real problem, or is it more about rare materials (embodied energy), exploiting the huge potential of renewable energy sources and build smart and efficient energy supply networks.

About knowledge & skills

2) Who is responsible for the good result of an energy retrofitting project?

Do we have to build a common European knowledge base and develop new skills accordingly to have a big European market or shall we support local knowledges, local practises and local supply chains?

About behaviours & lifestyle

3) Homes for dwellers or dwellers for homes?

Do citizens have to adapt their behavior to energy efficient buildings or should the buildings be adapted to their evolving lifestyles?

About economy & finance

4) Retrofitting for the next 5 or for the next 50 years?

How can we assess which is the right level of investment/renovation on a case by case basis?

5) Are there any sustainable financial tools out there?

What are the most flexible and sustainable financial tools to achieve the desired targets?

About regulations & standards

6) Do we really need more EU norms and regulations?

Do we need more or do we need new ones because the old ones doesn’t fit? In order to mainstream energy retrofitting do we have to finance certified solutions or shall we set the performance standards and let all kind of technologies and materials prove themselves on the free market?