| Demonstrating the benefits of sustainable housing
The UN action plan for sustainable development (Agenda 21) advises local communities to implement sustainable development plans that take into account local conditions. However, a significant barrier to the construction of sustainable housing in Europe is the perception that it is only practicable within affluent communities. SHE (Sustainable Housing in Europe) addresses this problem through a series of pilot projects that are demonstrating the feasibility of sustainable housing for all social groups. "Our objective is to reduce the distance between what we know is to be done to obtain more sustainable buildings, cities and life, and what is normally done," explains project coordinator Roberto Ballarotto. "We want to demonstrate by very simple numbers that sustainable housing is cheaper than usual, if calculated from a more responsible 'global costs' perspective."
Building on co-operation
The SHE project runs from 2003 to 2008. It is funded under EU Fifth Framework Programme’s ‘Energy, Environment and Sustainable Development’, Key Action 4: The City of Tomorrow and Cultural Heritage. The SHE consortium consists of two national housing co-operative associations (Federabitazione Europe, Italy; and FENACHE, Portugal), eight social housing organisations (in Denmark, France, Italy and Portugal), and seven scientific and consultancy partners. "Housing co-operatives are accustomed to interacting with end-users and have a high level of social responsibility in their activity," observes Ballarotto. The research institutes and private firms bring a wide range of technical expertise to the project.
Demonstration projects, comprising over 600 eco-dwellings in total, are running in Denmark, France, Italy and Portugal. Sustainable housing faces different challenges in the various climatic conditions encountered in these schemes. In the south of Europe, for instance, peak electricity demand is correlated with the use of air-conditioning, while heat storage systems are a key factor for sustainability in northern Europe. The aim in all cases is to optimise resource utilisation.
The sustainable housing technologies deployed include renewable energy sources (e.g. solar and photovoltaic panels), thermal inertia masonry, reuse and recycle water systems, natural building materials (with no toxic materials), energy-efficient lighting, natural lighting and ventilation, and local building traditions. The particular set of technologies deployed varies with local conditions. A number of protocols exist for sustainable housing construction, but the project aims to simplify these and to produce a set of best practices, evaluation procedures and guidelines that can be used anywhere in Europe.
The consortium is addressing the need to evaluate sustainable housing in terms of costs and benefits. It is important that investment costs are considered with respect to economic, environmental and social benefits. Calculations showing savings in power, money and pollution in the demonstration projects are helping to convince governments of the benefits of sustainable housing.
SHE project, Teramo, Italy
|SHE project, Pesaro, Italy|
As the building process is lengthy, the project partners have adopted an integrated approach that looks at sustainability targets for each stage of the construction process. The aim, notes Mr. Ballarotto, "is to improve the usual activities of the co-operatives without an excessive complication of their daily work". This is also leading to a better understanding of the major social, administrative and technical barriers that currently constrain sustainable housing in Europe.
One of the project’s key goals is to disseminate information and raise awareness. This process starts with the people who are to live in the houses. Tenants are involved in all construction and decision-making processes in the pilot projects, while their satisfaction with the dwellings is monitored afterwards. The consortium aims to raise awareness of sustainability issues in all urban development actors, particularly concerning the long-term costs and the direct and indirect benefits of sustainable building construction. The composition of the consortium ensures wide dissemination for the project's findings. The support of CECODHAS (The European Liaison Committee for Social Housing) is also important in this respect.
The SHE project will shortly reach its halfway stage, but has already achieved a number of successes. "We are happy to announce that some housing co-operatives have formally decided that in future all their developments will be made in a sustainable way," enthuses Ballarotto. The project has been successful in helping convince politicians and urban development actors that sustainable construction methods are applicable to all types of social housing. "Everybody is speaking about this, in Italy, Portugal, Denmark and France," Ballarotto explains. "For instance, in Portugal the SHE project experience is the basis for a new bill for promoting sustainable housing." In Italy, meanwhile, SHE has helped persuade the Ministry for Environment to set up a working group for sustainable housing.
Europe has the potential to become a world leader in sustainable housing technology. "European competitiveness is improving," notes Ballarotto, "so companies with innovation processes can enlarge their activities." Sustainability is beginning to be regarded as a business opportunity, rather than an obstacle. The SHE project is helping to validate and develop new methodologies and tools for sustainable development. These can improve the energy and environmental performance of housing, and enhance the quality of life in urban areas. The change in perception needed to bring sustainable housing into the mainstream is now starting to take place.