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Social housing could be the first sector to decarbonize

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Horizon 2020 HEART project unites hi-tech monitoring with ‘social and human needs’


Drastically lowering energy consumption in buildings – and indeed, developing nearly-zero energy buildings (nZEBs) and positive-energy (or ‘smart’) buildings that can interact with the grid – is a cornerstone of Europe’s climate and energy policy.


However, according to European Commission estimates, almost 75% of Europe’s building stock is currently energy inefficient, and the renovation rate ranges from just 0.4 to 1.2%, depending on the country.


Now a Horizon 2020 project, HEART (Holistic Energy and Architectural Retrofit Toolkit), aims to tackle some of the well-documented barriers – including access to finance and the perceived risks of renovation – and equip the social housing sector to lead in mass-scale retrofit.


Housing Europe, a network of social housing organisations whose members manage about 11% of households in Europe, is one of 16 partners in the HEART project consortium developing a multi-functional retrofit toolkit that can transform buildings into smart, low-energy homes and offices.


“Although HEART’s holistic approach relies on energy systems automation, algorithms and smart appliances, it is all about the people,” says Sébastien Garnier, innovation and project manager at Housing Europe.


An integrated approach


The central innovation of HEART is a cloud-based decision support system that can improve the business case by identifying the optimum combination of low-carbon technologies and operating strategies for a building.


According to new research published by project partners Politecnico di Milano (POLIMI) and the University of Lyon (ENTPE), European renovation markets are ripe for innovation using the technological path that HEART has chosen. 


“This is a holistic package, that combines all the different elements – photovoltaics, renewables, insulation and so on - for deep renovation.


You can choose the optimal mix and operational results for different technology combinations. This means that HEART shows where to get the best value, in terms of energy performance and investment costs,” explains Garnier.


The HEART system will be tested on four buildings, all of which are managed by social housing providers.


One of these buildings is managed by Est Métropole Habitat, a social housing organisation managing 16,000 social housing units in eastern Lyon, France. Another building is owned by ACER (Azienda Casa Emilia-Romagna) Reggio Emilia, a public housing provider in Reggio Emilia, Italy.


After the HEART interventions, the buildings will be in line with near-zero-energy building (nZEB) levels of energy consumption (<50 kWh/m2/yr) - and should achieve energy savings of 90%.


These test cases for the HEART system are typical of the target market in Central and Southern Europe: medium-size, multi-story condominium buildings, constructed in the second half of the 20th century and located in moderate climatic zones. There are an estimated 1,005,000 such buildings in Europe.


Social housing leads


In the social and public housing market, the decision to renovate is usually taken by the owner or landlord, “so here you are dealing with professionals who are used to dealing with large-scale renovation projects like this, and don’t require ‘one-stop-shop’ solutions that non-professional individual home-owners need,” says Garnier.


“The social housing market has the potential to scale-up fast and take the lead in deep retrofit and decarbonising Europe’s building stock.”


There has already been some success in large-scale renovation to nZEB level in the social housing sector, most notably through the initiative ‘Energisprong’ that originated in 2013 in the Netherlands as a government-funded innovation programme and has since evolved into a market initiative.


Energiesprong teams are now active in France, the UK, Germany and New York State. 


Garnier says: “Energiesprong became successful, in part because they were able to make deals involving bigger volumes. Social housing providers demonstrated the potential in terms of scale under the right conditions of costs and performance.


This motivated the construction sector – in general, showing low productivity growth - to invest in R&D, new technologies and processes, to become more competitive and adapt their technical offers and service levels in renovation solutions.”


According to their website, Energiesprong “views the social housing sector in each market as the launch pad for these solutions, with a view to later scaling to the private home-owner market.”


The HEART toolkit can be realised and deployed if the project achieves a certain scale on the number of buildings throughout Europe using the cloud-based system for ongoing management and optimisation of the algorithms controlling the energy systems.


In addition, the integration in one single toolkit of the different technologies is an important aspect – “this has the potential for cost efficiencies from packaged systems and in turn this could increase the market share for renewable technologies”, says Garnier.


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