Bral in The Bulletin on/over eco-housing

Onze eigenste stafmedewerker Piet Van Meerbeek geeft uitleg over het Brussels beleid inzake passiefbouw en lage energiewoningen in The Bulletin.  “People laughed at our suggestions of more ambition in energy performance only five years ago. That has completely changed. The time has come for low-energy housing in Belgium, as regional governments invest in lower energy consumption”, aldus Piet. Klik door voor het volledige artikel. 

The time has come for low-energy housing in Belgium, as regional governments invest in lower energy consumption

Anyone feeling particularly glum about life here as the mercury sinks has a point: houses in Belgium are, typically, poorly insulated and better equipped for Mediterranean climes. As we turn up the heat to stave off the winter chill, much of it goes straight out the window; not so good for our pockets, especially as oil prices trend upwards.

Also out the window are Belgium’s climate change pledges, if the regional governments, responsible for environmental policy, don’t do something to cut households’ energy consumption. This is a large contributor (in Brussels, the largest) to national greenhouse gas emissions. While the federal government dragged its heels on implementing a European Union law on energy performance of buildings (setting standards on energy efficiency), households are now, by necessity, firmly in the regions’ sights.

This has given the impetus needed to put low-energy housing on to the political agenda and into the mainstream. Once a luxury affordable only to eco-yuppies, low-energy houses and even passive houses (which generate most of the energy they need) are slowly becoming a possibility for everyone in Belgium as the governments introduce measures to stimulate investment, including means-tested bonuses and loans. The result is a boon for the eco construction industry.

Piet Van Meerbeek, energy campaigner at environmental group Brusselse Raad Voor Het Leefmilieu (Brussels Council for the Environment), says: “I think we can say that these measures have been successful. Investors – real estate companies, architects, local authorities – were very sceptical about passive and low-energy buildings. I remember people laughed at our suggestions of more ambition in energy performance only five years ago. That has completely changed.

“Nowadays, authorities build passive houses and private real estate companies are interested and more ambitious as well.”

In January, Brussels energy and environment minister Evelyne Huytebroeck unveiled an ambitious target to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 30 percent by 2025 compared to the 1990 level. According to Huytebroeck, households and the environment in the Brussels Region have already been benefiting from measures introduced to stimulate investment in energy-saving measures such as insulation and double-glazing.

The budget set aside to help households invest in energy-saving measures has increased tenfold since 2004. Huytebroeck says: “In just a few years, Brussels’ residents have become aware of how worthwhile it is to economise on energy. Between 2004 and 2010, ten thousand bonuses were granted.”For the past three years, the region has also hosted a competition for so-called Exemplary Buildings. It issues a call for building projects, including households, which improve energy consumption and keep their environmental impact to a minimum. Successful applicants receive funding. To date, 117 projects have gone ahead, resulting in the renovation of 400 households and, says Huytebroeck, a saving of 13,000 tonnes of greenhouse gas carbon dioxide. This should set the region well on its path to her goal of cutting carbon emissions to 3.7 tonnes per head compared to the average EU city dweller’s 6.8 tonnes.

In Flanders and Wallonia, homeowners have also benefited from subsidies to insulate (thereby cutting their heating bills) and install green technologies such as solar panels. Excess energy generated by these may even be sold to the network, earning the homeowner energy credits and helping the regions increase their production of renewable energy, as required by European Union law.

But, says Van Meerbeek, this hasn’t been enough to mainstream eco-housing, since a large proportion of people are either renting – and the owner has thus no incentive to make improvements to lower energy bills – or are what he describes as ‘need buyers’: people who buy because it’s cheaper than renting but are then left with no budget for such renovations.

These renovations have their price, adding as much as 10 percent to household costs. For need buyers, they are prohibitively expensive. While architects and environmentalists estimate that the investments can be recouped in the form of lower energy bills in seven to 10 years, at the point of purchase, these homeowners have little if any financial leeway. “If we can’t reach these need buyers, we won’t solve the energy problems of a large part of our houses,” says Van Meerbeek.

The realisation on the part of governments that they have to tackle the burgeoning emissions from this sector (in Brussels, houses represent close to 40 percent of total energy consumption) and reach out to lower-income families to do so has prompted them to introduce means testing for bonuses and loans.

“Access to energy is one of the main sources of inequality between citizens,” says Jean-Marc Nollet, energy minister for Wallonia, where half the region’s 1.5 million homes were built before 1950 and are therefore poorly insulated. “As we all know, CO2 emissions threaten our global climate and the planet itself. A deep change is therefore needed in the way we produce and use energy,” says Nollet.

Flemish energy and housing minister Freya Van den Bossche has also introduced means testing and a law requiring landlords to insulate the roofs of their properties. By 2020, they will be forbidden to rent out property that is not well insulated. “Poverty, poor housing and unaffordable energy bills still go too much hand in hand,” she says.

Back in Brussels, Huytebroeck has gone a step further. She has succeeded in getting a law passed, requiring all new buildings to be passive from 2015. The law is “quite spectacular”, according to Van Meerbeek. In practical terms, it means the energy required for heating must be reduced to 15 kilowatt hours per square metre per year compared to the 150 kilowatt hours required for a classic construction with a conventional heating system.

This can be achieved by insulation and making a construction airtight but at the same time introducing a ventilation system where heat may be exchanged. Often in passive buildings this involves allowing the air entering a house to pass through the ground first, heating it in the winter and cooling it in the summer. Students at the University of Ghent (see box) have developed a low-cost form of zero energy housing, meeting passive standards, which they hope to showcase internationally.

Although it’s expensive to convert a house to passive standards, energy bills diminish dramatically and, according to Passivhaus, a global energy performance standard developed in Germany in the 1990s, even on the chilliest days, the temperature inside never drops below 16°C.

The fact that each of the regions have prioritised such households – who would previously have been irritated by environmentalists harping on about the benefits of such unaffordable investments – and Huytebroeck’s plan for the ‘passification’ of Brussels are putting Belgium at the forefront of eco-housing. Van Meerbeek says: “Luckily, it seems most decision-makers here are convinced now that eco-housing is not something to annoy the poor but something the poor really need. They do more about it than anyone else.”

THINK INSIDE THE BOX                                                          

It’s often said that Belgians, with their fondness for building their own homes, are born with a brick in their stomach. Students at the University of Ghent have more of a prefabricated, eco-friendly one in theirs. The result is a do-it-yourself zero-energy home, their entry in this year’s Solar Decathlon contest.

The winner of the international contest for universities, hosted by the United States Department of Energy in September, had to offer a combination of affordability, consumer appeal and design excellence with optimal energy production and efficiency. With this in mind, Team Belgium developed a kit home in the shape of a cube, which can be built in just a few days from the contents of three crates.

Although they lost to an entry by the University of Maryland, Team Belgium project manager Michael Lenoir says their E-Cube entry has attracted some interest, particularly from architects in South Africa. His goal is to bring the message of eco-housing to the masses and make it affordable for them.

Emma Porter Davies, The Bulletin, 13 dec 2011

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