Why the End is Just the Beginning, When Retrofitting Homes

Photo by Bureau Door

by Mark Douglas Wessel

Whether it’s a goal of putting someone on the moon for the first time, coming up with a vaccine for COVID-19 or in the EU’s case becoming carbon neutral by 2050, announcing such admirable goals while inspiring, is the easy part. Sorting out how to get there – as mentioned previously, is where the real work begins. And such is the case with Europe’s goal of retrofitting as many as 35 million buildings over the next decade.

This also helps to explain why despite its early success, Energiesprong has adopted a mindset of constant improvement with respect to everything from financial models for retrofitting, to the evolution of products and materials used to ongoing enhancements to the renovation process itself. For example, revisiting the way façades are produced – ideally at the factory level, in a manner that will make them a more desirable, more affordable choice for individual homeowners.

“If you look at wraparounds for post war stock (the best candidates for this work), I think the façade component requires another step,” observes Ron van Erck, head of Energiesprong’s international market development. “They make sense for certain houses where the façade quality and insulation values are poor and it’s financially viable for housing providers to invest in this work over a 30-to-40-year period. But currently, many private homeowners will continue to think that sort of investment is going to be too steep. So, for façades, we still need another step in innovation to put a push on in the coming year.”

Photo's by Fabrice Singevin

Knocking Down that First Domino

Innovation not just in terms of how façades are produced, but the scale on which they’re made. Sébastien Delpont, director of Energiesprong France feels the key to ramping up and industrializing the retrofitting process comes down to achieving much higher production volumes, not unlike other mass-produced products or services. “There is one domino after another that we need to get down and in our view, social housing is the first domino. If I had to knock on the door of each and every homeowner to convince them to retrofit their homes, it’s going to take a lot more time (to ramp things up). So a better solution at least in the short term, to get the numbers we need, is to target social housing organizations that can deliver hundreds or even thousands of homes right from the start.”

Yet another area of innovation that has become a priority is ensuring the circularity of façades and other building materials used to retrofit homes.  “We continue to work on ways to bring down the cost of retrofitting homes and such elements as the façades – which in itself, is a huge innovation. But now we have another step… and that’s ensuring as many materials as possible we use are recyclable or cradle to cradle.” Energiesprong is proud of the strides they’ve made thus far “but now we want more,” he candidly observes. “On a project-by-project basis, we’re getting more focussed on sourcing more low carbon materials. From a neighbourhood wide perspective, a critical next step is to get more private homeowners on board with energy conversions.” 

Designing More, for All

To accelerate building innovation tied to cost effective net zero retrofits, over the past year Energiesprong has launched design competitions on both sides of the Atlantic. In the MustBe0 Design Competition (the MustBe0 project is funded by the Interreg North-West Europe programme) launched in the UK, the central theme of ‘Build Up’ focussed on best practices for adding new layers of dwellings on existing flats, while transforming the entire building to net zero. And in a design competition in Berlin themed ‘Net Zero Now!’ the emphasis was on retrofit solutions for multi-story buildings, including the use of such essential components as roof solar panels and insulated façades.

Arguably one of the most exciting aspects of this innovation drive, is they’re being made not for the profit of one company or group, but for the benefit of all players in the industry. “The thing is we are an open-source change maker,” observes Delpont. “Basically everything we’re doing is public because we’re working for local authorities and States within the EU. So it’s not a matter of supporting one specific company or cause… we’re just helping everyone because it’s in the public interest to make it easier and less expensive to do deep energy retrofits.”

Photo by Bureau Door

Knowing What the Puzzle Looks Like

Energiesprong’s openness and ‘a rising tide lifts all ships’ mindset carries over into the group’s long-term objectives as well. In sharp contrast to the corporate world, where the focus is on such criteria as market share and longevity, Energiesprong’s mindset that van Erck openly admits is “we want to go away as quickly as humanly possible. Because that means the problem has been solved.”

To get there, he says “we’ll continue to work with a handful of actors that make-or-break projects. The homeowners. The financier. The solution provider. And the regulator. If you can put those four into a room and make them understand what they must do… then a very real opportunity to bring about change emerges. I don’t think anyone else is going about it in that way,” he says, adding “it helps if you know where you want to go. Because I think a lot of people look at just one piece of the puzzle, before knowing what the completed puzzle looks like in the end.”

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