The idea of living in a cold damp property is not very appealing; but for a large proportion of Europe's rural population, this is a very real problem. This is because many country cottages, though picturesque, are poorly insulated and have old and inefficient heating systems. Unfortunately, upgrading these properties to modern standards of fuel efficiency can be beyond the means of low income or socially excluded families.
One community in France’s Normandy region seem to have found a solution. Combining the work of professionals and volunteers, using primarily local materials and tackling both the financial and social implications of isolation, the Enerterre project offers an easily replicable and highly innovative solution.
Under the supervision of a professional craftsman, local volunteers provide the necessary labour to help renovate and restore decaying properties and make them more energy efficient. Not only does this keep costs down for those who might otherwise be unable to afford these improvements, it also helps to provide valuable skills for the volunteers and encourages social integration by introducing homeowners to their neighbours. Though initially partially funded with €33,197 of European rural development funds, the project is now fully self-supporting, as the contribution made by homeowners also helps to fund the scheme.
The programme has additional benefits. By using local materials, it supports rural employment and reduces any negative environmental impact of transporting materials to the building site. The homes themselves also become more environmentally sustainable, as consumption of fuel decreases due to the improved efficiency provided for by the renovation works. This shows how a well thought-out rural development programme can have a positive impact on the well-being of communities, whilst also helping to preserve our environment.
One creative solution found by Enerterre is the local exchange trading system (LETS). This is a system of working time exchange, where beneficiary homeowners devote their time and labour to helping other homeowners in their local area. This is an exceptionally powerful tool for social integration as, by including the beneficiaries within the program, they also receive the opportunity to meet new people and learn new skills.
For Catherine, whose home was restored by the Enerterre program, this was a key feature of the schemes success.
“I had just lost my job. I was having a hard time and losing confidence. Thanks to Enerterre, I realised that I was able to do things. I also realised I was not the only person this kind situation, experiencing such difficulties. This experience restored my self-confidence and allowed me to think that I could make it.”
This combination of providing social inclusion, local employment and environmental sustainability is what makes Enerterre a great example of a forward thinking rural development project. Not only has it had a substantial effect on its local area, but it is also exceptionally transferable and can serve as a best practice example for other areas of Europe. Given that inadequate housing is a substantial problem throughout Europe, the decision of the project to work with the European Union’s ERASMUS plus scheme to disseminate this method to an additional four countries is a particularly welcome development.